Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Unwanted Help

How do you deal with unwanted help?

The good intentions of friends and family in offering emotional and tactical help can sometimes be welcome, and can sometimes be just another burden to deal with when you or your sweetie are suffering from illness or pain.

When I was very ill, I had a friend who would call every day to ask how I was doing and then launch into her stories about pain, in which she generally featured as main character. It was wretched enough to have her use my suffering as a platform for her narratives. It was doubly wretched to be asked, every day - "How are you doing?" That question was just salt in the wound and served not to comfort but to remind me that I was not doing well at all, and that I had no idea when or if my pain condition would change.

I had another friend who called or emailed most every day and simply said, "I'm thinking of you." That was lovely. It felt like the sweet touch of a cool hand on my desperate brow. Not intruding. Not insisting I engage in any way. Just a brief loving contact that I knew could be extended should I need that.

Many people just don't know how to talk to someone who has a serious illness. Out of their own nervousness (and for some, out of their blind self-involvement), they ask too many questions, tell too many stories, offer to do too much. These offers, even if meant benevolently, become extra weight for the ill person to carry. When all your resilience is tied up in just holding your own self together, offers and questions can be the extra straws that break you down instead of fortifying you.

So how do you deal with family and friends who load you down with well-intention extra straws?

Firstly, be aware that this is happening. Don't just respond out of hospitality or habit, and then wind up entangled in a conversation you don't really want to have.

Secondly, know that your taking care of yourself takes precedence over another's hurt feelings. If you need to shield yourself from another's well-intentioned but unhelpful involvement, you must do so, or pay the price later in increased tiredness, pain, depletion.

Thirdly, communicate. People will inadvertently intrude. They don't know what is helpful and what is not. And what is helpful will change over time. Communicate - in person, by email, through a trusted third party -- and let friends and family know what your needs are. Do you want to be left alone? Do you want people to stay in touch, but not to expect any response from you? Do you want people to send you articles or other resources they have found about your condition? Do you want visitors to not drop by without advance notice? Do you want help with specific activities (e.g. drives to medical appointment, grocery shopping, child care)?

Fourthly, know that these efforts come from love. You can appreciate and express gratitude for the love, while setting limits on the involvement.

What stories and ideas do you have for letting your family and friends know what you want and don't want from them?


colleen said...

So well said! You just helped me validate several feelings that I may experience on a daily basis!
-COlleen, Wheelchairlady

cinderkeys said...

What kinds of unwanted help do people tend to offer? The chronically ill people I've talked to either appreciate whatever has been offered, or they wish that anybody would offer ANYTHING instead of just leaving them to fend for themselves.

Barbara K. said...

Glad to help Colleen.

Cinderkeys - you're right. Many ill people want more help,not less. But I have heard stories of help that felt intrusive, blaming, demeaning. Help, when on target and delivered with sensitivity, is a vital and wonderful gift.

Anonymous said...

I am really glad I found this article ,thank you!
Over the last few years my parents have had hospital visits ,and I'm near so I can help with whatever they wish,but leave it to them to let me know what .
They are intelligent independent people and that's how I treat them.
My sister who lives interstate ,rings them several times a day ,emails bombard them,offers of help,'can I help,please please please I want to help' .Apparently the word no is falling on deaf ears ,so I've had to be very stern recently with her about that .
Her constant attempts to 'help' have made a hard situation much harder .
I know she means well,but let's remember ...the road to hell is paved with good intentions .I have explained that since geographical distance is an issue ,perhaps a purchase ,or an online bill payment would be appropriate ? Unfortunately it became a case of her ringing far distant cousins ,in an attempt to get them to 'help' .
The end result was a great deal more hassle than necessary .thanks again for this article ,I felt mean telling my sister so firmly to stop her dramas ,but now I don't .