One of the shitty things about being human is that some of us sometimes get really sick. A will-I-live-or-will-I-die sort of sick. As a collective we spend our lifetime trying to outrun our own mortality so being forced to face it makes people feel a bit ick inside. We feel inadequate because we don’t know what to do or the right thing to say. The thing is when someone gets sick (the live-or-die kind of sick) there is no right thing to say. But if there was, ‘let me know if you need anything’ (LMKIYNA) isn’t it.
I hate bitching about this sentence because it is generally well intentioned. People desperately want to know what they can do to make things even a little bit better. The problem with LMKIYNA is that it is supremely unhelpful. You’re not actually connecting with anyone and it puts the onus on the sick person to reach out when they need something.
When I was first diagnosed with appendix cancer in 2016, it took my family totally by surprise. I was supposed to get diabetes or one of the many other weight-related illnesses I’d been willingly marching towards, Mars Bar in one hand, bottle of Coke in the other, not some rare cancer in a body part whose function we’re still not quite sure of. Just the mention of cancer had people LMKIYNA-ing all over the place so, when things started to get tough, we decided to put aside our stubbornness and reach out. Again and again.
It became so hard to nail people down in the end that for the most part, we stopped asking. Some days I pushed myself way further than I should have and Naomi pushed herself to just before breaking point. But we got shit done. Even worse than the LMKIYNA was that when people realised all the things we were doing, some were genuinely upset and angry that we didn’t reach out to them. Honestly I could have screamed.
The reality is that life keeps going. People still have to work and care for their families so when I needed help sorting my lunch or cleaning up a mess there were very few people who had the freedom to drop by. We tried keeping track of when people could help but it was like being a full time roster clerk.
“No, they can only help between four and four thirty on days starting with T, and he can only do Saturday mornings before 9, and they can help every third Friday except in months beginning with J. And M.” A few people said things like ‘of course I can help, but can we change that to Tuesday?’ Seriously? Can I change my cancer-related needs to a day that better fits your schedule? In the end we decided we didn’t want to get angry over well-meaning gestures and we gave up.
Instead of saying ‘let me know if you need anything’ show up and say ‘I’m here. How can I help?’ Because of course there are things we need. We’re sick. One of the most amazing things someone did for us during that time was when my cousin dropped by and did the most hated chore in our household – she washed the dishes. It was spectacular! In a close second were my partner’s work colleagues and the parents from preschool who did groceries for us and dropped them at the house. It’s the little things, the help with the boring and mundane parts of life that mattered most. At the time, things like not being able to lift the kettle for a cup of tea or clean the shampoo out of the bottom of the bath so I didn’t slip over were the things I needed help with, but no one sees those as things you need help with.
If you can’t show up, don’t feel bad. Tell someone you’re thinking of them and wish you could be there, send flowers or a thoughtful gift or actually ring them and have a good old fashioned chat (remember those?). You know your friends/family… do something you know they’d appreciate so that they don’t have to add helping you to feel helpful to their list of things to do.