Today I heard from my oldest and dearest friend. We’ve been sisters from other misters since kindergarten. Friends like us have NO secrets. Friends like us have a history that allows a conversation to pick up midstream that may have been paused three months ago. When she calls, I am delighted to talk to her and always relieved that there are no evident gaps in the time lapsed. And as is often the case, friendships like these continue to teach life lessons.
When she called today, she had a specific question. “Jen, I’m having lunch tomorrow with ‘X’. I haven’t seen her in awhile and I need advice about what to say. You do this all the time and I need your advice.”
Sometimes I say Oy. Sometimes I say ugh. This one was an Oomph. A gut punch.
I’ve met friend ‘X’. I love friend ‘X’. She’s awesome, hilarious, in fact. We were in the same sorority at different schools. Friend ‘X’ has two high school daughters. Friend ‘X’ has no sordid past on which we can blame her stage IV disease. Friend ‘X’ was six months late on her mammogram because she was busy dealing with some health issues of her husband. Friend ‘X’ now, after double mastectomy, has disease in her brain and liver.
Friend ‘X’ is going to die too young.
But I am focused on my friend’s request for advice. What do I say? I am always humbled when asked for advice because most people that know me intimately barely trust me to pour coffee. This is a big ask and I want to deliver with a quality answer.
I have spent the better part of the last 17 years dealing with hospice patients and families. It is not entirely clear to me how, yet I feel blessed that it is true, my role has been one of first responder. Doctors, hospitals, families call me and say, “It may be time…” “I’m afraid we need..” “Could you please come describe…” I can honestly say for all the years I have done this, I have yet to lose my sensitivity for the gravity of that call and the importance of its response.
So you’d think, with all these years of experience, I’d be ready to call my dear friend back with explicit instructions for her conversation with friend ‘X’.
But do you want to know what I did when I got her message, asking me this question? I cried. Yup. Punched my steering wheel and cursed LOUDLY that we are still having these conversations with young Moms. I cried -a little sad and A LOT pissed.
Then I called my girl back, because if anything, I will never leave anyone hanging. And I share this because a lot of friends ask me this question and I want to be honest and public about my answer.
I don’t know what to say.
Brene Brown has suggested in a presentation about empathy that the best response to any declaration of pain is, “I don’t know what to say, I am just so glad you told me.” And who am I to argue with the brilliant Dr. Brown?
I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into a home or hospital room and met a family whose faces stare back at me with a shock and confusion and sadness that say more than words possibly could. I am quick to acknowledge that it isn’t anyone’s best day when I, “the hospice girl”, shows up.
What I want to share with you, the reader, just as I did with my oldest and dearest friend, is, if the benefit of my experience has taught me anything, the desire to say the right thing is overrated. Sick and scared people don’t want our preaching, our advice, or a list of things we are going to do to help them.
I remember with privilege visiting a young woman with breast cancer who was also a dear friend. My only question to her was, “Why am I here today, my friend?” And she was more than ready to detail everything she wanted. It was a powerful, direct, and very clear conversation that was hugely helpful for her family in decision making.
From what I have observed, the very best thing, when talking to, or better listening to, the seriously ill is:
I don’t know what to say
I will listen to anything you want to say
We can “be” any way you want to be-- and that can change based on how you feel.
These “I don’t know what to say” conversations are happening, or SHOULD be happening all over the country, every day. It breaks my heart to see friends and families, with hearts full of love, afraid and intimidated to address the elephant in the room. And I know there’s volumes of research about these talks and I am not going to proclaim I am an expert, I am just sharing what I have observed.
Like the old man walking the beach, throwing the starfish back in the sea, I believe that my beautiful friend will have a purposeful and hopeful conversation tomorrow with friend ‘X’. That singular conversation makes a difference. And if I can continue to promote more conversations like this, with people that need empathy and solutions, I will believe in the good that can come from listening before talking. And that makes a difference.