Being a good friend to a person in pain can be the bravest thing you’ll ever do. It means letting them yell, letting them be unreasonable and loving them until they find a way back to themselves.
Being a friend when you’re in pain can be tricky as well. I often made it impossible for my friends to help me – pretending I was OK and then falling apart in private.
From years in the trenches of childhood cancer, what I know for sure, is that we all need safe spaces. Safe spaces to talk about our pain, without censoring ourselves, safe spaces to feel normal at times and safe spaces to rage and feel like no-one is going to judge us for that.
I think the reason so many oncology parents become very tight friends is that we don’t need to build a safe space between us – our shared experience itself is a safe space – a place where we feel deeply understood.
But here’s something else I know for sure – our friends and our families DO want to be part of our safe space, we just need to teach them HOW.
We need to teach our friends how to handle us with care and how to speak to this new version of ourselves.
No-one is a successful mind reader so, to build our safe spaces to talk, we need to invite our friends in and show them around.
The first lesson I really needed to teach my friends is a rough one to hear – How I respond to them is going to be wildly different on any given day, depending on how much I’m going through and how honest I’m being with myself about that. I needed to let my friends know this so they could be patient with me.
I also needed to realise that while this massive, life changing, drama was happening inside my family, everyone else had stuff going on too, and my hard stuff didn’t make their hard stuff any easier.
For my closest friends I had a code – it was ‘banana’, This is embarrassing to admit, I wish it was a better word but my safety word was banana. A text of ‘banana’ was a cry for help – it said, I am pretty far from coping right now and I need a lifeline.
I confided in my sister that when I was in a state of banana, when I texted her, I needed to hear back from her as soon as possible, because, when I was in that state, the story I was telling myself when I didn’t hear from her was that she wasn’t thinking of me, which wasn’t true, she was just mad crazy busy and was waiting for when she could call and have a proper chat. I needed to let her know to text me she’d call later to help me dial down my feelings of being alone.
So, like a beautiful art exhibition I began curating my friendships. This wasn’t about deciding who was in and who was out of my life but it WAS about deciding who was good for what jobs. It was about managing my own reasonable expectations of my friendships.
It had to be OK that not everyone can talk about this. Highly emotional conversation are a learned skill – not everyone can talk about sickness and loss.
Before I began building safe spaces, on my bad days when I was tired and sad and hurting the inability of someone to talk to me about this would drive me insane. I’d wonder ‘Why can’t you support me?!’ And sometimes I’d rage at that.
But then on my good days I could see that for some people connecting in this way is painfully uncomfortable and may very well be the hardest thing they do all week. It doesn’t make them a failed friend, it just means they’re not good AT THIS and what I figured was they were great friends for laughing and forgetting, just not great for my safe space.
We do NEED to build safe spaces for ourselves to talk about what is happening, without the fear of making someone uncomfortable or sad or being judged or abandoned. . It’s important to find safe space to say “I’m having a rough time” out loud, and that statement being met with care and love and possibly chocolate and wine.
I think the key here, is knowing which friends are good for what jobs.
Some friends are really great at making me laugh but might just faint or run from the room if I talked in much detail about my pain.
Some friends cry when I talk to them and that’s OK with me.
The few people I do open up to about my pain will sometimes need a break, and I try to be mindful of that.
So, for me, learning to be open with my friends, about the hard stuff, is still a work in progress
I’m learning to ask ‘Is this OK to talk about?’ and I am learning to accept that the answer isn’t about loving me, it’s about what the person is capable of.
I’m learning that when I’m not OK, I don’t have to pretend to be OK. No-one begrudges me a day on the couch netflixing or a childlike tantrum.
I ASK my friends if it’s OK to talk or I tell my family I need some slow days and some special care.
These are my main takeaways for building safe spaces.
Start -Find safe spaces to talk –ask friends if it’s OK to talk to them, give your friends permission to have their own bad days where they not be available for you they way they want to be and try to have more than one friendship in your safe space. There are also some great safe spaces within the Bravery Box community. Head over to our website and join our membership and you’ll be invited to our online and our in person safe spaces.
Different friends often have different jobs. You’ll have your listening friends, your laughing friends, your helping friends, and if you’re really lucky you’ll have one or two people who can do all of those things.
Finally if you want to learn from my mistakes – don’t pretend to be OK when you’re not, I did that a lot (I still do this a bit) Noone can help me when I wasn’t being honest. Try to be open and honest with how you feel and what you need.
I hope you’re finding your safe spaces to talk because we do need to talk about how we’re feeling.
Remember, the Time for Courage… is now.