“How can I pray for you?”. They were the words sent to me via a text message from a teaching colleague. I just shared the news that chemotherapy might be on the horizon as treatment for the cancer cells found in my breast.
The thought of chemotherapy scared me. I don’t take aspirin for a headache and I’ve never really had the full-blown flu. And, honestly, I never actually felt this cancer. It was felt as a lump by a doctor during a routine check-up. So, the idea of putting poison into my body to kill some possible cells that could have escaped from the lump was frightening.
Yet, here were some words sent to me that allowed me to think about what I needed from someone who wanted to offer support but did not know how. No, she could not cure what ailed me. No, she could not promise that getting chemotherapy would prevent the cancer cells from reappearing. No, she could not promise that the side effects would be easy. What she was doing was asking me what could she ask for from God on my behalf that would make this journey more hopeful than it seemed.
My response took the form of: Please pray that I can continue doing what I am doing. I’ve found the right path to be on: owning my story, developing my writer’s voice that comes alive in the classroom and shows students that it’s okay to be vulnerable and open. I want to continue on this road, I want this part of me to grow stronger. I hope God gives me the opportunity to pursue this.
My reply taught me a lesson about what matters most to me. However, this exchange taught me how to interact with people about whom I care when they are going through personal crises and I don’t know how I can help.
We’ve all been there: someone loses a job, someone’s relationship falls apart, someone gets a diagnosis. We want to say the right words but we just aren’t sure what they are. We want to offer our advice or opinion, just do something, but our friends or loved ones may not be ready for advice or opinions and can’t really tell us what needs to be done. When we venture down those paths, the conversations can get messy, feelings can get hurt, someone may end up walking away slighted. In truth, it all starts with the best of intentions.
Yet, the words are simple: “How can I pray for you?” or “How can I support you at this time?”. Simple, yet meaningful, the words allow the person to be honest about what they need at the time. Perhaps, your loved one just needs to know that someone is praying for them, maybe they can come up with a specific idea of what they know about you and how you can help (at one point, I was enlisting family and friends I knew whose styles I admired. I had them on call for when the side effects would kick in & I needed to feel good about myself physically), or, perhaps, they might just ask for your presence without speaking any words at all (for me, this took the form of asking people to sit beside me during meditative coloring sessions, having folks practice beside me on yoga mats or just going out for runs).
Allowing someone to take ownership of what they need in their life during a difficult time eases the burden on everyone.