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When You Don’t Know What To Do (Part Two)

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I have been writing a series of articles on managing simchas and crises when they occur at the same time. By sharing the stories of what happened to others in similar situations and what helped them, it is my hope to give some ideas to both the people in crisis and those who desire to help them.

Last week, I shared Shana Chana’s story about how a friend and his wife helped her clarify her immediate needs. Today, I am going to tell stories shared by other well spouses who also had to deal with joy and crisis at the same time, and the help they found in dealing with the many tasks that had to be done. They called this help “wonderful” not only because of how helpful it was, but because of how it was offered. Perhaps the stories may guide us the next time we choose to help a friend.

Many families with an ill member will tell you that celebration and crisis often go hand in hand.

Zesha’s chronic illness worsened just as Zesha and his wife Yaffa were about to celebrate their daughter’s wedding. Yaffa had only a week to deal with Zesha’s hospitalization and worsening condition while finishing the preparations for the wedding. She wasn’t sure where to turn first. There were so many last minute things to do for the wedding and so many new things she needed to do for her husband. She felt as though there were a tornado of thoughts whirling around in her head, and she had difficulty thinking about one thing before another displaced it.

There were seating arrangements to be made, kosher food baskets to be made and dropped off at the hotels, things to be delivered to the catering hall, and people to be picked up from the airport and delivered to their hotels and home hospitality. She also needed to visit her husband, deal with his depression over missing and performing part of the wedding, find a Rav to take his place, and have time left to deal with her own preparations (wig, makeup, nails and exhaustion).

Just as she was trying to decide where to begin, her doorbell rang. Her friends Sharon and Stan immediately began to help. “We’re going to the airport on Thursday to pick up Nathan (a mutual friend coming in for the wedding), so please give us a list of the guests you’re expecting. Give us their flight numbers and we’ll pick them up and take them to where they’re staying. We also know that you have to take some things to the catering hall. Stan will pick them up when you have them ready. You know he works just ten minutes away. Now, what else do you need?”

It was not Yaffa’s nature to call out for help. She found it easier to offer help than to take it. But the helpers had come to her more than ready to assist in the tasks they knew needed to be done. They made it easier for Yaffa to let them help her.

Yaffa told me how wonderful it was to get her list cut in half, as her friends took the other half. Yaffa also knew she’d have to lower her expectations and so with great regret, she crossed off delivering welcoming baskets for her guests. Much to her surprise, baskets of drinks and snacks were left at the hotel for her guests. She still has no idea who prepared them.

Rachelle and Stephen, a couple from out of town who were old friends of Yaffa and Zesha, had planned to arrive early to enjoy the celebrating and preparations with their friends. When they arrived and saw the situation, Rachelle began preparing meals for Yaffa’s family as well as cooking for the out-of-town arrivals. Stephen spent as much time as he could at the hospital so that Yaffa knew her husband had company and didn’t feel she had to be there constantly.

On the day of the wedding, two of Zesha’s friends decided to split the time and stay with Zesha. They didn’t want him to be alone during the wedding. One friend stayed for the first half and the other relieved him midway through the festivities so that they could both support their friend and be there to help celebrate for at least half of the wedding.

These stories gave me many ideas about how friends can help friends in need. Friends showed up, asked if their involvement was needed, sincerely offered to fill in the needs, were unobtrusive, and did what was needed without waiting to be asked.

The offer of help was not general, but specific. Well spouses often comment that general offers such as: “Let me know if there’s something I can do” were nice and probably meant sincerely. But it was the specific offers that were really helpful. Examples of these offers are: “I’m going to the store. Tell me what you need.”

“My kids will be at your house at one o’clock to take your children to the park.”

“Supper will be delivered to your home at 5 p.m.”

These offers are the special ones, the ones that are easier to accept, and the ones that are especially helpful.

In the past year, the ICU unit in my city has hosted three weddings either at a parent’s bedside or through a sound system. It seems that juggling joy and crisis is more common than we imagine. Perhaps knowing how to help is more appreciated than we realize.

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When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

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Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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