Monday, May 6, 2013

5 Ways to Bring Comfort in Times of Illness or Distress.

We all want to help people in times of illness or distress. Often it is very difficult to know WHAT to do in these situations, even though we would love to bring comfort to people we care about.

Twelve years ago when we came from Hong Kong to live in the USA, we were very lucky that Aida our Filipino housekeeper came with us.

As British expats with three young children aged 8,6 and eight months, we knew almost no one in the DC area and Aida helped ease our transition in many ways. Most importantly she was a familiar, well loved caregiver for our kids as we set about trying to forge a new life.

 Aida is part of our family. She no longer works for us on a regular basis, but has a key to our home, celebrates family milestones with us and gets huge hugs from our boys whenever she has an opportunity to visit. Any of you who have met Aida know that she is generous, loving, caring and kind. We are so lucky to have her in our lives.

In order to come to The States with us, Aida knew that due to her immigration status, going back to her birth country to visit her family might have to wait a long time. 12 years on, she is still waiting for her green card to come through, meaning that she is permitted to live in the USA, but if she left she would be unable to return. Her current employers have tried everything to speed up the process, but to no avail.

Three weeks ago Aida came to help me out. I had just come back from morning carpool and I could hear her talking in hushed tones on her cell phone. As soon as I saw her face, I knew something was wrong.

 She proceeded to tell me that her older sister had just died in the Philippines of a recently diagnosed cancer. She was only 63. Although Aida is one of ten children, Alicia was the 7th child and Aida eighth. So Alicia was the big sister, closest in age to her and Aida adored her. In fact Aida told me that everyone adored her. She was always the life and soul of gatherings, very friendly and welcoming to all and acted as a connector introducing Aida to many she might otherwise not have met. She made everyone laugh and was lighted hearted. 

Alicia enjoyed  cooking and entertaining and loved flowers, bringing them in pots into her home, much like her many friends and tending to them all with love.

The more I listened the more I wondered how I could bring Aida comfort. I had never met any of her siblings. She was so far away from the comfort of her family home where two of her siblings lived and the 40 days of mourning were taking place. Aida had visited with her cousins in New York the weekend of the funeral and found solace in their care. But I know grieving has its own time frame and for each person it is different.  Then it occurred to me, having heard about Alicia, that perhaps Aida would like to honor Alicia's memory with something here in the USA. Something that would remind Aida of Alicia's love of life.
Flower dictionary: Yellow lily = light hearted, cheerful

 We came upon the idea of buying a yellow (Alicia's favorite flower color) flowering plant, we could plant outside, that would grow and flower from year to year. Aida lives in an apartment so we chose a spot for it together, in my front yard and every time Aida comes  to visit, Alicia's lily will be waiting for her.

So with this idea in our minds, the following week I  took Aida to the Garden Center and after savoring the pleasure of the spring blooms we were guided by a knowledgeable employee to a yellow lily that would flower and multiply each year, was hardy enough to endure our range of temperatures and could cope with some shade in the spot we designated for it.( We planted it right on the path to our front door where you could not miss it.)

 What I had not fully entertained in this plan was that the whole process was cathartic for Aida. Having Alicia at the forefront of her mind guided Aida in the color and kind of plant. Choosing where to plant it in the garden gave her some control over how to plant her memories and nurture them, knowing she could revisit them just like the plant, whenever she wanted. 

But it was the opportunity to share the idea of planting the lily in honor of her sister that at this time gave her the most comfort. Her siblings and friends were so glad to hear about the plan, her flower choice and a way to mark this great loss. Aida told me they were very comforted by this idea, they had not thought of. For Aida it was something practical to do, to re enforce her connectedness with her beloved sister in the face of such great distance from her loved ones and the traditions continuing in the Philippines.

 So how can we work out how to bring comfort to people in times of distress?

Here are five of my suggestions.

1. The most important thing you can do first, is to LISTEN, openly without judgement or interruption. This action shows the person that their words and feelings matter and that you are there to comfort them, not to try to solve their problems.

2.  Listen carefully to their story and WHERE they are in the PROCESS of their challenge, illness or grief. This may give you clues as how to best help them.
A friend of mine in the UK was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. In passing she  told me she was knitting a pale pink hat to keep her head warm. She said her extremities always seemed to be cold. After hearing this,  I went and found the softest pale pink socks to match her head covering and mailed them to her.

3. Visit on THEIR time frame. When someone is sick, is a caregiver or is grieving, time is very precious and precarious and there may only be small moments in the day when they can cope with a visit. If you say you are coming at 1.00pm then making sure you are there on time and be mindful of how much time the person can handle you visiting.

4. If you want to bring a gift, try to check out what might be APPROPRIATE. Although flowers and books are lovely, if the person has allergies or difficulty concentrating these may not be the best idea. Some freshly cut fruit or magazines might be alternatives.

5. Keep in REGULAR touch and FOLLOW THROUGH on your promises. When someone is going through challenging times, their world is turned inwards. All their energy is channelled towards getting through the day minute by minute. They may not have the energy to call you back, write an email or even send a text. But don't let that stop you from checking in. High stress and low support can lead to great isolation and a message or visit or plan from you can make all the difference. You could send an email weekly before the weekend, a card in the mail every Monday or deliver a Starbucks weekly. Small, regular gestures can make a big difference.

The greatest lesson I have learned from this experience and other care giving moments, is that you really do not know the extent of the impact you are having through your actions.  But for that person, knowing you cared, were consistent and were thoughtful in how you chose to help may have been the biggest comfort of all.

How have you brought comfort to someone or had someone bring comfort to you at a difficult time?

Take care


You might also be interested in

What a Crisis Can Teach Us About Celebrating
Customs and Traditions: An Unexpected Bonus
The Art of Listening

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  1. Gilly,
    Another wonderful and insightful post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing. Valerie

    1. Thanks very much for stopping by and leaving a comment Valerie!

  3. I find it so hard to not try and solve their problems - even though this is supposed t be a male trait. I love the lily idea.

    1. It is hard not to want to provide solutions and that might be the outcome of the listening but often people don't need their problems solved immediately. They need the opportunity to talk about them in a safe non judgmental space. When we really listen carefully without jumping in, there are often clues as to what might help most. In many cases it may be that us listening for longer is the solution! Gillyx

  4. Oh, Gilly - for me, this is one of your best posts ever! Such a touching story and such sound advice on how to help others when they are in distress. Yasher Koach!

    1. Melissa -Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me. It was a toughie. Having not seen her sister for 12 years and then being far away from all of her relatives and friends who knew Alicia added an extra layer to Aida's loss.The lily does not take away from the grief , but for Aida it has been a tangible way to express it and honor her sister too.

  5. Thank you so much Ma'am Gilly for your unwavering support & for giving me new strength in coping our loss & grief.On behalf of my family,my sincerest thanks for the wonderful posts. You're such a person who truly cares!!!

    1. Aida, I'm glad you have found some comfort in these words. We will always be here for you. We love you! Gillyx