Today we had a very familiar conversation with my sister-in-law. It took me back to when my husband first found out he had cancer. It was all about managing information flow.
Both my husband and his sister are very social individuals. Perhaps it comes from being raised by immigrants; their parents brought them over from England when they were quite young. Their cousins, uncles and aunts still remain overseas. As newcomers to Canada they had to go out and make relationships. To this day they both are very active within the local community.
When my husband got his diagnosis for cancer he was shattered. He went from fine to Stage 4 in one day. It was dark days and obviously still is troubled times. For him to have to tell his story over and over was like torture. He told a few, very few, family members and friends and it was all that he could bear. It became a challenge for me to manage, since people didn’t want to get the news from me, they want to speak to him directly. Imagine having to repeat over and over again the same awful news – and not when you are up to it, but rather on command, when someone decides to phone you.
My sister-in-law came by today and we talked about this. She has quite a few phone calls on her answering machine and just doesn’t want to do the call back. Can you blame her? I know people are well meaning, but sometimes they can be unintentionally cruel. To leave a message that says “Oh my God, I just heard the news! Call me!” does not make for an easy call back. She already knows what it will be about and likely dreads hashing through the details to satisfy someone’s curiosity. You see – it’s real for her, it’s not for the other person – it’s just a conversation and then they go back to their life.
Some people try to find common ground and they go through their own health aliments. Really? You think this helps – it’s cancer we’re talking about here folks – and it is not about you at this point. Others will tell stories about people they knew who had cancer – sometimes there is no relevance whatsoever, does it help to know a complete stranger got well? And I should care because…? Who’s to say it’s even true?
I think our favorite phone calls, and we still get these, are “Just thinking about you guys and thought I’d call. If you need anything let me know.” No pressure, no response required – but these are the ones that we usually call back – because we can determine what we talk about – we can even ignore the disease completely.
It’s all about empathy, compassion and consideration.