Last week I shared that I am walking a difficult path with my dearest-friend-who-is-like-a-sister. I’ve never done anything quite like this before. That means, I’m processing, stretching, and learning as I go. For over a year, Emma and I have talked about the fact that we are learning a new dance. We don’t know the steps and we’re probably going to step on each other’s toes, but we are oh-so-careful to be gentle in the process.
I fear that I may step on some toes in this post, dear reader. That’s not my intent and I promise to be as gentle as I am able to be. Nevertheless, as I learn these dance steps, I have discovered that there are some unspoken “rules” that – if followed – prevent wear and tear on the most vulnerable toes in this routine. So, I’m begging for grace as I cut to the chase and share what I’m learning …
One thing that has become clear to me is that many people have no idea what to say to a person who is dying, to their family, and to those closest to them. Most of us are trying to figure out our place—where we fit—if we fit at all—in the puzzle.
I read something over a year ago that stuck with me as I suspected it would be important for this stretch of the road. It was a system for how to avoid saying/doing the wrong thing in these situations. I made notes and kept them … it was THAT good. As one who has historically been known to engage her mouth and heart before her brain, I needed to figure this out. I’m going to apply the technique to Emma. (I’m sure she loves being my test case.) This is my take on the model I read about (don’t shoot the messenger, please):
Imagine a diagram of concentric circles. The innermost circle is Emma. (If you have a loved one who is experiencing a trauma of some sort, you can put their name in the circle.) She’s the one who has the metastasized breast cancer, so she gets the center ring.
The next ring is the person closest to her. In this case, it’s her husband Kevin. (The person in this ring gets extra grace when it comes to the guidelines that follow.)
This pattern continues with the next closest people. Children, parents, siblings, and intimate friends are in smaller rings than less familiar friends and acquaintances.
We don’t need to be told exactly which ring our name falls in. Really … We don’t need to know! It will become apparent as time passes. We’ll figure it out. The only person who really knows where people fall is the person in the centermost circle, and she probably couldn’t give us a list unless we’re in one of the smaller circles. The bottom line is: Don’t get hung up on this.
This is how the circles will help so that we communicate with love and grace without sticking our foot in our mouth and unintentionally hurting someone’s heart.
Emma (or whoever is in the center of your concentric circles) gets to say WHATEVER she wants to say to ANYONE. Period. She can also choose not to say things too – her choice.
Everyone else can have opinions and think things, and say things as well – whatever they want to say – but ONLY to those in BIGGER CIRCLES.
Read that last line again, because this is the sticking point. (Don’t pass “go” until you completely understand this.)
When we are having a conversation with anyone in a circle smaller than ours, we need to listen more than we talk. We need to comfort, encourage, and support, not give advice or share your opinions. Oh, and no one in a smaller circle wants to hear that we know “exactly how they feel” – because we don’t, and even if we have an excellent experiential story that we are confident is similar to their experience – save it, because it isn’t. No one else’s experience has ever been and never will be exactly like the person in the center circle’s experience. (We need to dial-a-friend in a bigger circle if it’s eating us up not to share.)
This simply is not about you or me. It’s not about what we need. It’s easy to get caught up in how we are feeling and as a result create discord and stress, when we really long to contribute to a peaceful environment. It’s not about how hard this is for us, and believe me, I know that it’s breaking your heart just as it’s breaking mine. Can we agree to talk to someone who’s in our circle or one that’s larger about that? Better yet, let’s pour out our heart to the One whose shoulders are big enough to bear all of our burdens.
My notes say, “Comfort IN, dump OUT.”
That means we don’t “dump” on anyone who is in any of the circles that are smaller than ours. Instead, pour IN comfort, love, support, and prayer.
I’d like to make special mention of children. If the person in the center ring has children, let’s take special care about what we say to them. They especially don’t need our stuff dumped on them. It’s not necessary to ask them any questions about their parent’s health. Ask an adult. Figure out who your friend’s chosen point person/care-traffic-controller/gate-keeper is. If there is something we really need to know, ask his or her “person.” If it’s curiosity or worse – understand that there are just some things we don’t need to know and refrain from asking.
Imagine all the scenarios that this concentric circle model fits. It’s not just when you have a friend or loved one who is dying. This fits anytime someone is in crisis; a divorce, job loss, home burns down …
It’s normal in these situations to wonder … What will he do about X? How are they going to handle Y? Do they have a plan for Z?
Here’s the deal — if we are part of the answer to X, Y, or Z, we can trust that someone in a smaller circle will come to us directly. If they haven’t, then we probably don’t require answers to these questions.
As long as I’m on a roll, I might also mention that when we tell someone who is facing a terminal diagnosis, “but you look so good” – though our intention is to compliment her, it actually invalidates her pain and symptoms. By God’s grace they hope they look better than they feel. Palliative care can sometimes help them navigate a little bit longer than they would if they weren’t getting help managing pain.
So this feels like an awful lot of DON’Ts. Sorry about that. I know how helpless you feel to do or say the right things. We all feel that way in situations like this.
There are some things we CAN say.
We can admit, “I don’t know what to say, but I care about you and I’m praying for you.” (Then DO it! There is absolutely nothing more powerful than prayer.)
It’s appropriate to say, “I have no idea what this is like for you, but I am here if you need anything.” (Don’t say it unless you mean it.)
Above all else, tell them you love them.
Recognize that there will come a time when, because of the particular circle we are in, we will no longer have an opportunity to tell them anything this side of heaven. Then we continue praying and we continue caring for those in the smallest circles.
On Sunday morning, we sang “10,000 Reasons.” Okay, so I ugly sobbed and croaked out “10,000 Reasons,” arms raised and heart full.
And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore
I can only speak about my friend, but the reason I believe Emma looks stunning—even now—is because Jesus is in her eyes. He is filling her up with more of Himself than ever before. I know this is true because I see Him in her eyes. It’s what hope and glorious anticipation of Home looks like in the eyes of one who has followed Jesus imperfectly, but oh-so-closely all her life.
With her arm raised in praise on Sunday morning, and the support of the one her soul loves, I rejoiced that our eternal future is sealed. My friend and I will sing God’s praise unending – ten thousand years and then forevermore.