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Helping a Friend with a Problem You Can’t Fix

01 Apr

I recently found out that a neighbor and friend from years ago had just learned that her husband of 40-plus years had terminal cancer and only a few weeks – at best a couple of months – to live.  

It just happened that I was visiting her city at the time, so I called her up to see if she wanted to get together. She quickly replied that she would, so we arranged a time and place to have coffee.  

I mentioned this to a friend, who said, “Oh, that’s going to be a tough visit – such a terrible situation”.  But I was looking forward to seeing her.   

We hadn’t visited in quite a few years, but I’d been meaning to contact her for some time – she was someone I was hugely fond of, someone I’d always admired enormously – smart, capable, funny and who never, ever took herself too seriously – the perfect next door neighbor to trade kid-related favors and advice with. 

We’d shared an important, crazy-busy, overfull period of our lives, when our kids were young and we were working, trying hard to juggle everything and be all things to all people.

One of my clearest memories was of her nonchalantly finishing a take-home exam for her graduate MBA program, sitting up in a hospital bed, having just delivered her fourth child.  As with everything else she did, there was no complaining, drama or noticeable anxiety – just taking care of business.

As I entered our coffee shop meeting place, just the sight of her in profile, sipping tea as she read (with underlining) a book club selection, elicited a wave of affection laced with memory fragments soaked in nostalgia.

We talked a long time.  It had been 9 years since I’d gone through a similar scenario, so I had some distance and perspective to offer.  And I knew her husband well – she wasn’t starting from scratch with me.

She had all kinds of questions: how had I told friends and relatives? Did we disagree about whom to tell?  How did we deal with all the conflicting medical advice?  How did my kids help out?  How did I eject unwelcome but well-meaning visitors?  Did we have end-of-life conversations? Had we discussed what he wanted regarding DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders, funeral arrangements, future relationships with other men, remarriage, co-mingling of assets?  What did I do that helped me most as a new widow?  How was I doing now?

All this was interspersed with tears and laughter at our shared memories and the rich understanding we had of our husbands’ quirks, strengths and flaws.

Our conversation was close, connected, useful, energized, uplifting.  Our old sisterhood of being in the trenches together had kicked right in.  At the end of our time together, my friend said something like, “I feel so much better.  I see how I can do this.”

I thought to myself, “Well, of course you can do this.  You, of all people, can do any freaking thing that’s do-able”.  

We both got back into our cars feeling terrific, even under such sad, distressing and profoundly unsettling circumstances.

My takeaway was pretty simple.  I remembered what my friend had told me earlier, that this would be a tough conversation, and I thought:  No, only if you feel you have to fix the problem.

If you know you can’t fix it, and just connect around whatever you can offer, or just be there… that’s plenty.  That’s a real gift.   

All best,


Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award