Saturday, December 8, 2018

Weekend column: Being there

“In prosperity our friends know us;  in adversity we know our friends.” ~ John Churton Collins

Cindy La Ferle

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It was almost midnight. My husband and I had just returned home after spending eight grueling hours in the emergency room with my elderly mother, who had fallen and fractured her ankle earlier that day. Staggering like zombies into the kitchen, we were surprised to discover that our dear friend and neighbor, Matilda, had left a warm pot of minestrone on the stove -- and even fed the cats in our absence.  
That was more than six years ago, and my mother has since passed away. But I've never forgotten how comforting it was to be on the receiving end of such a thoughtful gesture. 
Once we hit midlife, it seems, family emergencies and health crises seem to crop up as quickly as forehead wrinkles and under-eye bags. Suddenly, we’re spending more time caring for elders, visiting hospitals, attending funerals, and answering twice as many calls in the middle of the night.
More than prayers and platitudes, we need reliable shoulders to lean on.  Sometimes we need hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves assistance and emotional support. Sometimes we need check-in phone calls. Sometimes we need a homemade casserole.
How to help

I’ll be the first to admit that being fully present for a loved one in crisis isn't always possible. We’re all sandwiched tightly between our own commitments and good intentions, and it can take a herculean effort just to pop a greeting card in the mail. It's much easier to send a text or a Facebook message and be done with it.
But showing up for someone needn't be complicated. Most folks appreciate simple acts of kindness that answer their basic needs.  
During another time when my mother was in the hospital, for instance, my husband and I didn’t have much time to grocery shop. At exactly the right moment, a Fed Ex delivery guy arrived at our door with a gift box of fresh fruit and nuts from a couple of our friends. “This will give you the energy you need to keep going. We love you guys,” the accompanying note read. 
Others phoned to inquire about my own well-being as well as my mom's condition after her surgery. Like good therapy, those calls helped ease my stress and made me feel less isolated. Every comforting gesture, in fact, lifted my spirit and helped me face each unpredictable day at the hospital. 
Friends in deed
This time of year is especially trying for anyone dealing with a family crisis, illness, or the loss of a loved one. 
In her recent holiday blog, author Cheryl Richardson explains the importance of providing tangible help to our friends and family members.  
"Right now, there's someone you care about who is burdened by a project they feel unequipped to handle," Richardson says. "Instead of spending money on gifts, why not offer to help out?" She suggests assisting a family member who has trouble getting organized, or offering to help a busy friend with holiday decorating.
Other ideas: Offer to babysit the kids of working friends who need free time for Christmas shopping. Or bake an extra batch of cookies for a grieving family. Whatever the need, don't wait to be asked. Most people aren't comfortable requesting help or favors, even when they're overburdened. 
Closer in crisis

Difficult times provide opportunities to strengthen relationships -- whether you're the one who's giving or receiving help. We grow closer to friends and relatives who are willing to sit with us in the trenches while we battle our toughest challenges. 

I was numb and depressed during the first two years after my mother died. Friends who understood my exhaustion -- as well as the depth of my loss -- could see that I wasn't myself and needed time to recover. They understood that I needed more than lunch dates and shopping sprees. Those friends were available to listen and offer emotional support. And they didn't take it personally when I had to pull back from normal activities. 
All said and done, most of us have a list of casual friends who'll meet us for dinner and show up at our cocktail parties. We need those good-time friendships, too. But there's no substitute for true friends of the soul -- the ones who keep us glued together and nourished during a full-blown crisis. 

As Oprah Winfrey puts it, “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” It also helps to have friends who can make an awesome kettle of minestrone. -- Cindy La Ferle
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*Part of this post was originally published in Michigan Prime magazine. 

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