True Healing

A few months ago, I fled with my small child to a woman’s shelter to find refuge from a violent husband. Several weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It would be fair to say that this period of time has produced the speediest learning curve in my life.

Aside from poverty, fear, loneliness, panic and heartache, I have also had to contend with some rather stupendously hurtful comments from people privy to my situation. This has made me very aware of my own character defects and to learn to use my own tongue more compassionately.

Many people have been incredibly wonderful, wise and generous to my son and myself, and to those people I say: "I love you, pure and simple, and I am forever grateful to you." To those of you who truly meant well but said foolish things, I say, “I forgive you.” However, there have been those who said such hurtful things that I promised myself that, when my life had significantly improved and I had a little emotional detachment, I would write about how to truly help a person with an illness, and not simply drown them in unwanted advice, emotional bullying, and a propensity for using someone else’s tragedy for social gossip. All of those things, I am here to testify, do nothing but harm.

Next time you hear someone gossiping about a person’s illness or some other distressing circumstance, particularly in a way that is judgmental of the person being discussed, perhaps you could intercede by saying something like this: “Perhaps we should ask our friend if there is any way in which we can be of help. If she says yes, let’s help. If she says no, let’s respect that. Either way, I feel it would be kinder not to discuss her in this way.”

With that in mind, and using my experience as an example, here are some lists for your contemplation. They can certainly be adapted to any situation, or for any person, as needed. The main thing is, be prudent in what you say and consider your motivation before you speak. Above all, respect the person’s wishes.

Ten things NOT to say to a woman who has just gotten a one-year restraining order against her chronically violent husband and a diagnosis of breast cancer in the same week, and who also has a four-year-old child and no money

  1. Oh, my God, now your son won’t have any parents.
  2. Cancer…that’s so horrible! My neighbor is dying from it right now.
  3. You’re an intelligent woman. How did you get yourself into this?
  4. It’s so terrible that you have a child. If only you’d never had a child with him!
  5. Divorce is devastating for a child his age!
  6. I thought my life was bad until I heard what happened to you!
  7. Did you know stress contributes to cancer mortality?
  8. You need a drink.
  9. Don’t you think it’s selfish of you to separate a child from his father?
  10. Gee, has your husband been under some stress lately? Have you tried being more supportive?

Ten things to say IMMEDIATELY to a woman who has just gotten a one-year restraining order against her chronically violent husband and a diagnosis of breast cancer in the same week, and who also has a four-year-old child and no money

  1. You’re going to kick this right in the ass!
  2. You go, girl! I’m right there with you! How can I help?
  3. I’m bringing/sending you cash.
  4. Here’s the name of my lawyer.
  5. Please come to dinner this Friday and bring your child. What's his favorite dessert?
  6. May I testify on your behalf?
  7. My friend had breast cancer and she’s doing great.
  8. May I babysit for your child?
  9. Would you like me to walk your dog?
  10. This gift certificate to (a health foods store, bookstore, massage, a cleaning service, or other equally practical shop or service) is in honor of our friendship and the wonderful ways we will celebrate it together over the many years to come!

Why give someone cash? It's entirely likely a woman escaping from a batterer will have no access to her credit cards or checking account, which may either have been emptied or frozen by him. And any person with a serious illness has a serious need for money. Why the dinner invitation? Women who escape abusive situations, particularly women with children, are often treated as social pariahs with contagious diseases. (This is true of people with cancer, too!) Often, the abusive spouse has made a point of calling the woman's friends and family and telling them she is going through some kind of mental breakdown. He does this in order to prevent her from seeming credible, and to protect his image, but for a woman trying to escape a life of isolation, it can make life even more lonely and isolated. Invite these women to your home and remind them they are loved! Reassure them that you are going to be there for them. If they say "No, thank you, not quite yet," to dinner, respect that, but renew the invitation regularly, without pressure. And if, in fact, the battering spouse calls you to disparage your friend, politely tell him that you do not welcome such calls.

What has helped me most regain my balance has been finding people who listen to me when I tell them how I feel and what I need, and who do not load me down with their preconceived judgements and ideas, their fears and anxieties. These people give me the greatest gift of all: respect. That means I can trust them, let down my guard, breathe in the good air of healing.

It would also help to educate yourself and respectfully support your friend in her quest to educate herself. If the subject is abuse, read Lundy Bancroft's superb book, Why Does He Do That? which will illuminate the dynamic of domestic violence so that you can understand the breadth and depth of your friend's dilemma. (This will also help you avoid making very unwise suggestions.) If the subject is cancer or another illness, recognize that the subject is so complex and opinions so varied that the best thing you can do is support your friend in her search, her beliefs, her intuition and her faith.

You may feel you are an expert about someone else's situation or illness, but it is highly unlikely that you are an expert about anyone but yourself. People often imagine they are experts on a problem until they find themselves rowing through heavy weather of their own in their own tiny little boat. Then they wish they'd spent more time learning and less time preaching. The people who listen, hear and comprehend that the sacred, individual soul of a human being is not to be bullied, patronized or used as gossip, these are the people who are the healers, and I thank you. May each of us be thus to one another.

Sonata is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania.