I recently found myself drawn to revisiting our 2003 video “Voices from the Lived World of Illness.” I watched four courageous people express honest and heartfelt accounts of their experiences as patients facing advanced cancer. What they said resonates with me to this day. It’s as if their words are seared into my memory.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Writing is Good Medicine® program that I created and implemented at the Bennington cancer center and offered a writing exercise. After viewing this video, I thought that what they said about relationships might serve as a prompt for an exercise on this subject. The patients, who had not met one another prior to taping, were asked about how illness impacted relationships.
George said, “It sorts out who your friends are very quickly.”
Adrienne noted “And who you want to spend time with.”
George added, “Or, who wants to spend time with you.”
Pete confesses, “Yes, they were friends but where do they stand when the going gets tough. A lot of them have been there that I wouldn’t have expected.”
As a medical humanist at the cancer center, patients and their families often described deep disappointments about who did not show up to help and support them. They told me stories about seeing people in the supermarket who they’ve known for years pretend not to notice them and turn away. I would hear about people making excuses about reaching out to help, which was usually followed by, “please give me a call if you need something.”
Yet, with greater frequency, there were countless stories about unexpected generosity. People would express their love and support by showing up with food or insisting on driving a patient to an out of town appointment. Sometimes, all it took was a kind note or a phone call, even left on an answering machine. As anyone who has been there knows, being ill can be a lonely place.
Relationships between patient and caregiver are a two-way street. Most of the time friends and family want to help but just don’t know what to say or do. Communication is a bridge to understanding what might be helpful or meaningful. With this in mind, I’d like to offer a writing exercise. Whether a patient or loved one, this can be an opportunity to explore what you’ve experienced in relation to family or friends.
Remember the rules: write the first word that comes to mind and continue; forget grammar and punctuation; and don’t erase.
Begin with a theme that George expressed, “What sorted out my friends was…”
If you’d like, please share in the comment section.