Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Art of Being Supportive

Being a supportive friend isn't as easy as it seems.  There is an art to it. 

I can't even comprehend what it must feel like to know that death is a real possibility due to illness.  I think for most people who are in reasonable health, it's a concept we toy with occasionally, but quickly push to the back of our consciousness.  It's a fear that most people don't examine in depth because it seems so very remote and so scary to contemplate that one day we will just be gone with no genuine idea of our destination from that point. I cannot imagine what it might feel like to have to face that reality.

I have a dear friend with a life-threatening illness.  He's pretty young and has already had a close brush with death.  He has children and family that care for him very much and who, I am sure, depend on him to be there.  He has an abundance of friends who all seem to thoroughly enjoy his sense of humor, sarcasm and wit.  He has a definite presence in this world.  And the idea that he might die really scares me because a world without him will be a little less bright and a lot less interesting. I can only imagine (and not very well at that) how he must feel.  In addition to that particular stress, the illness has caused him to be unable to work and do many things he previously enjoyed.  The pressure he is under is intense.

That amount of stress and pressure can be isolating, especially if that person is someone who handles most of life's issues with introspection and self-reliance.  No one in that person's immediate circle would really understand what kind of fear, doubt, uncertainty and anger that the ill friend would experience.  Self-reliant people don't want sympathy and unless someone has been in those circumstances, empathy wouldn't apply. A lot of friends would want to be 100 percent positive and cheerful, but that too could be isolating and irritating for some people because it seems disingenuous. In situations like this, distance is created because no one is really sure how to act. The people who support a sick friend have to figure out how to do it right so that it will be meaningful, impactful, and appreciated.  It's a really hard thing to determine which line to walk or which emotions and behaviors to balance.  There is an art to being a supportive friend.  One I have yet to fully master.

I will freely admit I am not very good at it.  I want to be supportive.  I want to be helpful. I want to be positive and stoic and fearless for him. What I really want is to fix the problem and make him healthy.  In my efforts to be a good friend, I forgot that receiving support and help can be a hard thing to navigate as well and can cause undue stress on the person for whom it's intended.  I think my attentions, which were well-intentioned, created a sense of expectation for thank yous or appreciation which in turn sapped energy from my friend who needs every ounce he has for healing.

Life is a learning process.  I've never really loved someone who had a long-term illness, so figuring out how to be a good friend in this situation is new to me.  I think, after a lot of reflection, I realize that I need to pay closer attention to the details, to listen to my intuition and his words, to not overstep my bounds, and to be very clear that the sole expectation I have is to help without any strings attached. A good friend is there when needed and wanted--no more, no less.

I am pretty confident that things are going to work out well.  I am a firm believer in positive thinking and happy endings.  I am also well aware of how strong, stubborn, and determined my friend is.  The disease should be intimidated by him, not the other way around.  As long as he wants me in his life and as much as I possibly can, I will be good friend and keep learning how to be a better one.

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