Some of us are uncomfortable asking for help under any circumstances. Even if we’re sick or injured. Even if someone we love has just died. Even if we are dying!
We come by this personality trait through no fault of our own. In the West, we’re programmed to individuate from our families of origin and manage our lives on our own. It’s considered a normal part of the maturation process. Those of us who fail to do so are considered adults who haven’t “properly launched.”
We learn to relish our independence, to celebrate it even, and we loathe circumstances that require us to relinquish any of it. It is seen as a failure of character.
However, we are wired for interconnection, and our survival as a species requires it. Evolution has made us creatures who rely on each other in order to prolong our individual lifespans. No man or woman is or can truly be an island.
When grieving a loss (including the loss of health), this is the time to ask for help. For once in your life, it gets to be all about you. You “get a pass,” so to speak. Why not take it?
It’s understandable that in the aftermath of bad news or tragic events, you may want to isolate. This is a natural impulse. The world can be overly stimulating, certainly too much sensory input for someone who is already emotionally, physically and mentally raw and vulnerable.
Stillness, space, quiet and rest are all needed for the recovery process to have a chance, so it can be tempting to try to achieve this in total isolation. But too much isolation, especially during a period of trauma and pain, can backfire and turn toxic. Managing it all on your own is not something to strive for when your energy and ability to simply put one foot in front of the other is already compromised.
Both after the suicide of my son (in 2010) and during the treatment of my cancer (in 2016) I somehow knew that I was not going to get through these experiences “intact” unless I asked for help. I set my pride aside (that part of me that likes to believe I’m “Super Woman”), and I unabashedly asked. for. help.
Sometimes the answer was, “Sorry, I can’t.” I had braced myself for the possibility that people in my familial and social circles might already be overextended and overcommitted in their own lives. I’ve been there myself (overextended and overcommitted). I understood that care of self needed to come before care of anyone else. When I got a few “no” responses I didn’t take it personally or as a rejection of me.
Not everyone can be helpful in all the ways that are needed. For instance, not everyone is a great cook. Not everyone is a good listener. Not everyone likes driving around running errands. I tried to ask people for the kind of help I thought they could step up to the plate for. Sometimes people want to help, but don’t know what to offer. Make a list and don’t be shy about circulating it. I also asked them how they thought they could best help.
Helpers and caregivers can burn out and that’s not fair to them, nor is it good for you, especially if you come to depend on their assistance. However, it’s not your job to decide when they’ve reached their breaking point. People have to be responsible for their own well being. Give your helpers permission – up front – to let you know when it becomes too much for them. [I’m talking about family and friends who are volunteering their services, not paid professionals.]
It helps to have extra helpers in your back pocket, just in case. Sometimes people step up with the best of intentions, feeling generous beyond measure, but then find they really can’t get involved without bringing chaos and stress into their own worlds.
I asked almost everyone I knew for help – even neighbors I’d barely waved to while dragging our garbage bins to the curb. Surprisingly, some people showed up without even being asked. Here’s a secret: people WANT to help. They will surprise you and themselves. It’s a beautiful thing! Don’t deny them the opportunity.
And finally, don’t forget to express your gratitude. Maybe some day in the future you can even return the kindness.
Remember, we’re all in this together. I know; sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes it feels like it’s you, all by your lonesome, against the world. But that’s just a belief, a cognitive distortion. Try a different belief: We are meant to connect. When you are in pain – due to loss, due to illness, due to whatever – resist the urge to handle it all by yourself. Reach out. There’s no shame in it. Ask for help.
In the comments, feel free to share how you have overcome your own misgivings about asking for help. I bet we can learn a great deal from each other’s experiences.
[FYI: My care during cancer treatment never got so complicated that I couldn’t coordinate help, but there is an app – Lotsa [Helping Hands]- which provides a calendar that all your caregivers can access. They can sign up for specific tasks and everyone else can see where there are “care gaps.” Like I said, I didn’t need it, but I have heard good things about the app from those whose circumstances required this extra organizational boost, and to ensure there was coverage around the clock.]