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Everyone knows someone with cancer. Or depression. Or a debilitating illness. Often we’re not sure what to do or say around people who are sick or suffering. When my friend Kara Tippetts was diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-thirties, we hadn’t known each other for very long. I didn’t have a clue what to do or how to help her. But I decided I did want to be there for her, even if cancer left me feeling clueless.
I learned a lot from watching Kara’s community rally around her while she fought cancer, and around her family after she passed. If you’re in the place I was – that confusing moment of “how do I do this?” – here are a few guidelines for what to do when you don’t know what to do.
It sounds so simple, but this is the first step we can take in being there for a friend or even acquaintance who’s fighting breast cancer—move toward them. When things are hard or uncomfortable, or maybe we don’t know someone that well, stepping toward them can be scary and leave us feeling vulnerable. But you don’t have to know what you’re doing right away. Just deciding to be there for them is the biggest hurdle to cross. Don’t run away out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Make the decision that you’re in, even if you don’t know exactly what that looks like.
Keep it Simple
We often complicate things. We think our gestures need to be grand or cross continents, but that isn’t the case. Sometimes it’s the cup of coffee, the hug, the text that says, “I’m thinking of you,” that makes all the difference. Yes, some people will rock at organizing the big fundraiser (and if that’s you, go for it!), but small, simple things also matter to the heart.
When you want to help your friend or loved one, be specific in what you offer to do. If you don’t know where to start, think about your gifts. What brings you joy and might also bless your friend during their hardship? Often that tug, that idea already fighting for attention in your mind is exactly where to begin. Instead of saying, “let me know what you need,” say “I’d like to help by doing ______. Does Tuesday work for you?” This makes it easier for a friend to accept help, and when you serve within your gifting, everyone benefits.
Be a Good Listener
When our people are telling us about their hardship, it’s hard not to want to help… and fix. But most of the time, they aren’t asking for this input. Often they just need someone who’s willing to listen and let them vent about what’s going on. Try to listen without letting your mind spin regarding what you want to say next about fixing their suffering.
Keep Including Them
Many times when we know our friend is sick or hurting, we assume that they don’t have the time or energy to be with friends or attend an event. This might be true—maybe they can’t fathom doing one more thing—but we can still give them the choice. Keep inviting them and don’t leave them out. At the same time, we need to be gracious if they need to say no. This is about showing them they are still loved, appreciated and noticed.
I’d love to tell you I did all of these things right as a friend surrounding Kara, but I didn’t. I made plenty of mistakes. In fact, sometimes that’s how I learned—by doing it wrong first. Hopefully these tools will give you the confidence to lean toward a friend instead of away, and to enter into the blessing of doing community together.
Jill Lynn Buteyn is the co-author of Just Show Up: the Dance of Walking Through Suffering Together, written with the late Kara Tippetts. Buteyn is also the author of Falling for Texas, an inspirational novel, and a recipient of the ACFW Genesis Award for her fiction work. Buteyn lives near the beautiful Rocky Mountains with her husband and two children.