Your parent has heard some grave words from the doctor. Life threatening words. You want to be supportive. But how?
Will Schwalbe, author of “The End of Your Life Book Club,” wrestled with that dilemma. His mother was struggling with pancreatic cancer. As they sat in the waiting rooms together, they talked about the books they were reading. And a book club of two was formed.
One book they read was “The Etiquette of Illness,” by social worker and psychotherapist Susan Halpern. Schwalbe says about Halpern’s book: “It’s really about what to do when you feel scared that doing something, if it turns out to be the wrong thing, might be worse than doing nothing at all.”
After finishing Halpern’s book in the middle of the night, Schwalbe scribbled down on a scrap of paper three things he didn’t want to forget. The next morning he began using them with his mother. Perhaps they’ll be helpful as you support your parent.
1. Notice the difference between “How are you feeling?” and “Do you want to talk about how you are feeling?” The first approach is intrusive and demanding, the second gentler, Halpen says. Your parent may not want to talk about how he or she is feeling for a number of reasons: possibly he or she is having a good day and doesn’t want to be the “sick person.” Or maybe it’s a bad day and he or she wants to be distracted by talking about something else. Or maybe your parent is getting tired of answering the same question all day long. Giving your parent a choice about conversation is empowering.
2. Don’t ask your parent if there’s anything you can do. He or she may not want to burden you. Or your parent may find that thinking of ways for you to help is more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, suggest things, or if it’s not intrusive, just do them.
3. You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough. Depending on their preference, you might touch their shoulder or hold their hand. Sometimes reading their favorite Scripture or poetry aloud is good. Bottom line, trust your knowledge of your parent.
I’m still reading “The End of Your Life Book Club.” I’ll keep you posted on any other tips I discover. Can you think of any other tips for communicating with parents who face life-threatening illnesses?