The Fallible Caregiver Series: Helping Her Stay Connected
I think one of the most dominant feelings for those in Cancerland is feeling alone. At least it is for us. There are different types of “aloneness,” but here, I’m referring to feeling alone in that no one around you really understands what you’re going through.
Alone and purple
In my book, In Your Corner, I talk a lot about this, and I describe it as turning purple in a world full of greens. When my wife, Rebekah, was re-diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, it was like we both suddenly turned purple. We were different.
The world is full of “normal” people who are all green. Sure, the greens can send cards, can come by and visit, and can even pray with us, but at the end of the day, they get to go home to their green lives with all the other greens while we remain where we were–purple. Different. Broken.
Add to this, we encountered several Disappearing Dragons. In another book I wrote, I talk about many types of what I call “Well-Intentioned Dragons.” These are people that mean well, and they appear to want to help, but often they sting with their tails and do more hard than good. One of these dragons is the disappearing one.
Disappearing dragons are those people who pop up when the cancer diagnosis is made known to everyone you know. They show up with flowers, cards, and love. They tell you they will always be there for you, but not too long after, they just disappear. As one writer put it, the well of good intention soon dries up, and you are once again left alone.
Rebekah is, by nature, a quiet and shy girl, so making friends was hard enough for her prior to cancer. Over the years, we’ve tried and gone to four different churches, always looking for a home. Rebekah has a very tough time making friends her age (30s) because most of the girls around her age tend to avoid her.
She’s bald, doesn’t have kids, and well, has cancer, and I think that just scares a lot of girls around her age. They don’t know what to say, so they just stay away.
Thankfully, the older women in all four churches surround her and love on her. Some of her best friends are beloved ladies twice her age. While we love these ladies, I know her heart still yearns for a friend (or two) closer to her age.
My attempts to help
When we got married (2014), I had a lot of friends, and Rebekah had none. The reason is that she moved to Southern California (my home) from Southern Oregon, and we met and started dating about a week after she arrived. I had 37 years in my homeland to build a solid group of friends, while she had little time to develop strong friendships.
After her re-diagnosis, it used to hurt me to see her feeling so alone. I’d go to work five days a week, and she’d sit home alone, left with her thoughts. I believe we are all designed to function and flourish in relationships with others. We are simply better together. So I made efforts to either help her make friends or to keep us connected to the ones we had. Here are some things I did.
Posted an ad for a friend
Ya, you read that right. I literally posted an ad for a friend for my wife. Okay, let me explain. Our apartment complex was connected to other complexes and townhomes in our area of the city. They had this neighborhood community site where residents could talk and post news about anything. Coyote spotted on Taylor Street… someone would post about it. Selling your terribly ugly wicker lawn chairs… someone would post a for-sale ad.
Well, why couldn’t I look for a friend for my wife? I posted an ad explaining Rebekah’s bio, her cancer situation, and her need for a local friend. It was a long shot and, of course, could attract some real weirdos, but what the heck? It turned out to be one of my best attempts to help her!
Sandy, a lady in her 40s, lived right down the street, and while she didn’t have cancer, she shared our faith, and she felt a draw toward Rebekah. Sandy turned out to be an amazing friend who faithfully called, texted, and came over to hang out with Rebekah. She genuinely cared, and she’s still a good friend seven years later.
Started a cancer support group
We both did this one, but we helped start a cancer support group at the church we were attending. The group lasted nearly three years, and we co-led it with a couple of other women.
We met twice a month on Saturday mornings, and everyone who attended either had cancer, survived cancer or was in a caregiver role. This was a great experience as it really enforced the often missed fact that we are not alone in this.
Push us both out of introvert land
Rebekah and I are both introverts, and actively making friends is a struggle for both of us. But I knew we needed them badly. While I had a lot of friends, they were all long-time friends who didn’t live locally with us. I knew I had to take the initiative in friend-making, so I made conscious efforts at it.
When at church, I made it a point to push myself to meet more new people. I made it a goal to make one new friend every time we went to church. I would force myself to approach people and introduce myself. The result? We made lots of friends! Go figure.
Another thing I did was encourage (sometimes push) Rebekah to stay involved with the women’s ministry and events at church. She would go to the Wednesday morning women’s Bible study, and if they had an event or a seminar or a tea thingy, I’d really encourage her to go. Again, while many of these ladies were twice her age, they are still blessed friends and supporters many years later.
Getting out of dodge
The last thing I did that really helped us get outside ourselves and outside our micro-life bubble was to take some vacations.
My parents gifted us with a cruise to Alaska for our honeymoon, and we fell in love with cruising. I think I did more than Rebekah because I love that once you step on that ship, you don’t have to do anything.
After Rebekah’s re-diagnosis, we’ve done three more cruises to different areas around the world, or at least the Western/American hemisphere. We’ve also made some cross-state road trips, too.
While vacations like this are not a cure-all, they do seem to hit a refresh button on life by allowing us to temporarily break free from our severely narrow life stories.
What I have learned about connection
1# - It’s crucial for both of us to stay connected. I can just as easily crawl into my own cave of self-isolation. I’m comfortable there. But I’ve also learned it’s when I start to dry up and wither. I’m weakest when I’m trying to do life on my own, and I’m strongest when I’m consistently connected to other people.
#2 - It takes work. It takes a conscious effort to put yourself out there and seek to make new friends. Making long-lasting friendships is very challenging as adults, don’t you think? It’s easy when you’re a kid. But if we want to stay healthy (or get healthy) and grow, we need others. We need their life energy; we need their perspective, and we need their presence. It takes active work, but the payoffs far outweigh that work or the risk.
Internal radiation therapy is the most common type of radiation used to treat breast cancer.