As a person who had until recently had 19 surgeries (yes, 19– and that number isn’t even close to the amount of surgeries some of my friends have had!), I always thought I’d be more prepared to deal with the eventuality of surgery number 20. Living with spina bifida, hydrocephalus, Chiari II malformation, and a host of other wonderfully Google-worthy secondary conditions, surgery number 20 was never a question of if, but rather when.
The when came and went three weeks ago, and in the meantime, I’ve had a lot of time and space to reflect on things I never realized as a child growing up with spina bifida. During the years that I was in and out of surgery constantly, I didn’t have the presence of mind or awareness to ponder the ideas– or even haunting thoughts– that come to mind as I continue my slow recovery, still mostly at home (with the occasional medical appointment followed by the inevitable reward of a coffee outing!).
So many of my friends, family members, and followers have been so kind and thoughtful in reaching out and offering me their thoughts, prayers, and good vibes, and for all that I am forever grateful!
Still, I’m sure navigating the sensitive territory of being there for someone who’s recovering can be tricky for most people (myself included- ha!), simply because there is no one right way to reach out to someone. Every single person has different preferences, and that applies to moments of illness, injury, or surgery recovery.
So, without further ado, here’s my paltry attempt to share a few ideas on how you might be able to reach out to a friend or loved one who is recovering from surgery or a serious illness or injury:
- First, try to think about what you know about that person. Again, each individual is just that– an individual, and what one person might find reassuring or comforting, another might find annoying or even offensive. Whatever gesture you choose to show that person you care, make sure it is something you feel he/she/they will appreciate. If that person loves sending you funny, irreverent memes via text, perhaps that’s the best way to go. But if you regularly meet up with this friend for lunch on the weekends, reach out with a sincere offer to bring them lunch or prepare a meal for them. If they’re too weak or tired or on a restricted diet, offer them a raincheck– and be sure to follow up on it once they are feeling better.
- Ask them directly what they would like or need. Remember– you don’t need to reach out exactly the day of their surgery or injury. Chances are, if recovery takes a while, they will need a friend at different stages of recovery, not just in the beginning. So, again, keeping in mind what you know about them, ask and let them tell you exactly what they want or need. Maybe they don’t need a bouquet of flowers, but they would like some company to watch a movie at home.
- Don’t force them to accept a gesture, no matter how well-intentioned. If they are in their first week or two of recovery, maybe they’re not ready for company yet. Don’t force your friend/loved one to play host to you if it’ll be more draining than helpful. Instead, maybe send a card or a quick message to let them know you’re thinking of them and will be there whenever they’re ready to see friendly faces. Also, don’t be offended if they don’t respond to your message right away. You have no way of knowing what they’re dealing with, and they might even be too out of it to remember receiving a message or call. Give them a free pass on social etiquette!
- Don’t publicize your friend/loved one’s illness/injury/surgery unless that person has asked you to share that information with others. People can choose to be very private about these things, and one needs to respect that. Not everyone will feel the same about you posting a selfie on Instagram at their hospital bedside. Again, your friend might be feeling frustrated at the things he/she/they cannot do right now. Allow them to have that control over their privacy.
- Whatever you do, don’t express feelings of pity! There’s a big difference between saying, “I feel sorry for you,” and “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” One conveys pity and can be interpreted as condescension, while the other communicates a genuine, sincere feeling of empathy and solidarity. If you truly want to make them feel better, offer doing something for them that will make them smile or laugh. Laughter is always a better medicine than misplaced pity! (And please do not get me started on those who say the well-meaning but eyeroll-provoking “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle!”) A good rule of thumb is to stay away from cliché sayings– save those for your Instagram account! 😉
And here’s a bonus, freebie tip for you that should go without saying: Do not ever, under any circumstances, visit someone who is convalescing if you are sick or suspect you are sick with something contagious.
Of course, as I write this, I realize I am sharing from my own personal experiences. These are my own personal preferences and peeves, as I’ve reiterated that no two people are alike. Some people might enjoy being surrounded by a large group of people during recovery. Some want a surprise flash mob or a Mariachi band by their bedside. Others prefer the low-key comforts of sitting with a friend binging on popcorn and Netflix. (Guess which type I am!)
The bottom line– do not shy away from reaching out in a way that is respectful of their recovery process. Convey to them that they matter to you and they are not forgotten. Often, people who are convalescing for a long period of time can feel isolated and even become depressed. Be mindful of that and perhaps follow up a few weeks later to check back in with them so they know they are still on your mind.
How do you like to convalesce? What tips or words of advice do you have for people reaching out to a loved one who is recovering? I’d love to see your ideas in the comments!