April 1, 2009
How can you be a good friend to someone with cancer? Doing the same things you do for any friend: show you care, express interest in her life, be sympathetic, and offer to help when she will let you. The best thing you can do is to be a good listener.
Being a good listener seems obvious, but it’s harder to do than it sounds. First, you need to remember that if you haven’t had cancer, you aren’t going to really understand what your friend is going through, what she is feeling. You might think you do, but you don’t. You can’t.
The fact that you don’t share the bond of cancer, though, doesn’t mean you can’t be helpful, supportive, and caring. You can be all of these by listening. Some of the most supportive people in my life have never had cancer. It doesn’t matter. They are good friends in part because they are good listeners.
Listening does not entail giving advice.
They are two totally different acts. One requires that you listen while your friends talks. One involves you giving your opinion about how your friend can change and what she can do differently/better.
In times of active crisis, the best thing you can do is keep your opinions to yourself. Unless you truly know what that crisis feels like (the death of a child or spouse, a serious medical diagnosis, or a divorce, for example), your advice will fall into the category “things people-who-don’t-understand say.” For me, others’ advice usually misses its mark. The result? I feel further misunderstood; therefore, I am more isolated.
My mother taught me the difference between these two acts. “Do you want me to just listen or do you want my advice?” she would ask. Sometimes I wasn’t sure. Sometimes I’d ask for the advice and not follow it. The fact that she gave me the choice, asking the question directly, gave me control. I was telling her how to be helpful– what I needed from her.
I know it’s not easy to just listen. But sometimes asking the specific question, “Do you want my advice or do you just want me to listen?” can help us be exactly the kind of people we want to be — better friends to those we care about.