By Anne Rabinow, a’h
A note from Jessica Koblenz, Psy.D.: On August 9, 1992, six months before she died, my mother wrote this article. She was a pillar of the Jewish community and I hope that her message can help others and make the community aware of how best to support those who are sick. This is published in her honor.
“It’s malignant.” In the two years since I heard those chilling words, I’ve experienced surgery, chemotherapy, and G‑d-willing recovery. As a psychologist and a person with cancer, I’ve thought about how people can help others through major illness.
Discovery of an illness is frightening and can be accompanied by intense reactions of shock, denial, anxiety, helplessness, shame, and sadness. Family members and friends are profoundly affected. It is vital to remember that many people are cured or recover for a long time. No two people cope with illness the same way. Some are private, for example, while others welcome contact. There is no correct way to be ill. The would-be helper needs to respond to the individual. Many of us have heard that attitude is important in fighting illness, meaning basically that compliance with treatment is needed. A hopeful outlook can help one tolerate a great deal. Yet treatments are often aggressive and it is difficult to feel strong when one feels physically at one’s worst. The support of others is vital to help the person cope and hope. Today, families are often far away. Feelings of isolation can be additional strain. We felt fortunate to be part of a community that values the mitzvah of bikur cholim and so readily offered to help.
My husband and I and our three children especially appreciated the following:
Mitzvot. Several people made Misheberach or told me they added my name while benching licht. Others told me they had taken on additional mitzvot on my behalf, such as giving tzedakah and saying Tehillim. These actions helped me feel less alone.
Help. Our shul organized groups that cooked and delivered food for Shabbos. Friends cooked or shopped for us the days I had chemotherapy. A classmate’s mother gave our six-year-old a little party when her birthday fell on a treatment day. What a joy to see her smile when she came home! Lending a hand with chores was greatly valued. Even clearing the kitchen table can be too exhausting for a sick person. Previously independent, I had to learn to ask for help and to remember that people wanted direction.
Emotional Support. Many procedures are frightening. Going with the person (if they want company) can alleviate anxiety about traveling and can distract the sick person from anticipatory dread. One friend stuck by me even though the drugs I received made me forget she had been there.
Communication. Many people are uncomfortable about what to say. Listening is a good start. Make your availability known by calling, visiting, or sending cards. My good friends were a lifeline. People who listened with interest to my physical and emotional concerns helped me cope. Those who continued to ask for my professional advice restored a sense of still being my old self.
Nonjudgmental Acceptance of Feelings. Anger is common and may be expressed in complaints about medical care when the person is actually angry about being ill or vulnerable. Sadness is to be expected and one can say “It’s only natural to feel sad at a time like this.” Encouraging the person to have hope is usually realistic and supportive. People who reminded me that the treatments would soon be over helped restore a sense of perspective. A former boss sent me an article about a man who had survived a more serious cancer than mine and this buoyed my spirits. Several fellow employees revealed their battles with cancer. Knowing that they had recovered encouraged me to think that I would do the same.
Regulating Information. People who told me of acquaintances who died of what I had depressed and angered me. Minimizing or trivializing what I was feeling shut down communication. Detailed questioning about the cause led me to feel blamed. Chastising the sick person for worrying may be intended to help but increases the sense of isolation.
Emotional Acceptance. Medications can have powerful effects on emotions. I regularly swung, without much control, from bursts of energy and confidence to despair and depression. My family and friends had to deal with unpredictable reactions. Despite one’s good intentions, a sick person can react intensely with hurt or anger. If this happens it is best to apologize and try not to take offense. Hopefully then, the relationship can resume and continue to nurture both people.
We felt truly fortunate to live in this community which so values the fulfillment of the mitzvah of bikur cholim. For us it meant so much to know we were not alone in this ordeal.