Last weekend I flew to Washington, D.C. to speak at a women’s retreat. The theme of the retreat was Finding God in the Storm.
In one of the sessions, I talked about my experience of going through breast cancer treatments in my 20’s, when everything I cared about fell apart, and a lot of people I loved disappeared on me. I know it can be overwhelming when someone you love is going through a really difficult time — and I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to say, or what to do, so instead, they say nothing and they do nothing. And it feels like they dropped out. Like they disappeared.
After the session, I had a lot of people ask me what they can do when someone they know is hurting. And this was my answer: just show up.
The story of Job has become a well-known account of a man who lost everything but his life. While he was grieving the loss of his children, his servants and his estate, he also got painful boils all over his body. He ended up sitting in a trash heap close to death. And then three of his friends showed up.
The friends get a bad rap because they spend about 40 chapters of the Bible trying to figure out why Job is suffering. They try to place the blame on everything and everyone, and it isn’t helpful at all.
Job’s friends are often cited as an infamous example of how unhelpful people can sometimes be when we’re suffering. But here’s the deal. Job’s friends only made one mistake: They opened their mouths.
If they’d kept their mouths closed, they would’ve been the best friends in the world.
I mean, they did actually show up for Job. They were the only ones who braved the trash heap and dared to climb through garbage to find their friend. The only mistake they made was trying to explain Job’s suffering or assign blame for it.
In my experience of having cancer, people said some thoughtless things. (Like my co-worker — after I told her I had breast cancer and needed a mastectomy and reconstruction, she said, “I wish I could get breast cancer, too, so I could get a free boob job.”) But there were also people who simply showed up, like my family and a few dear friends.
I got to see three of those friends in the past week — friends I haven’t seen since I finished chemo, because they moved to the D.C. area when I moved away to Portland.
I got to have dinner with Ted, a friend from journalism school who took the train 90 minutes from NYC to New Haven, and then walked 2 miles in 100 degree July heat to get from the train station to my apartment. I was too sick to get out of bed, and so he pulled a chair up to my bedside and we played cards for a while.
I got to see Rajah, who showed up when I was in the ER, waiting for a bed to open in the ICU. He brought me food from the cafeteria, sat by my bed, and read Psalm 23:
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…
I finished the retreat, and on Monday I flew to Paris to spend a week with my friend Karina. We met in 1997, when we were freshmen living in the same dorm, and she has become one of my dearest friends. She was living on the west coast when I was going through cancer treatments on the east coast, but she encouraged me from a distance. She listened to me on the phone when I needed to talk. She sent me notes on a regular basis. And she sent me dried herbs and flowers from her garden when she found out I was too sick to go outside and see plants for myself.
I don’t remember a lot of helpful things that people said when I was going through cancer, but I remember what people did.
I remember the people who didn’t give up on me. I remember the people who kept letting me know that, even though they couldn’t do anything to fix my situation, they weren’t leaving. I remember the people who loved me when I was not a very good version of myself.
What’s the best thing to do for a friend who’s hurting?, lots of people ask me.
Show up. That’s my best answer. Don’t try to find the “right” words, don’t attempt to “cheer them up,” don’t try to find something or someone to blame. Don’t fill the silences with unhelpful (and sometimes hurtful) words.
Just show up. Quietly, faithfully, lovingly show up.