My last visual memory of my always-a-step-away-from-hospitalized mom is from the passenger’s side mirror of the secondhand blue Geo Prism my husband and I owned.
She was standing in the parking lot of her apartment complex waving as my husband drove us away from our Rochester, New York home to our new apartment just outside Washington, DC. I was filled with guilt for leaving her behind. My always-healthy dad had died unexpectedly two years before, leaving me as my mom’s primary support system. Thank God for Lisa.
My longtime best friend was there for us, assuring me that she’d be my mom’s local contact and support if anything awful happened. In the month before my mom suddenly died alone in her apartment — an adverse reaction to a flu shot — Lisa fulfilled her promise, and then some.
Now I’m at an age when many of my friends are caring for ill parents. Many of those parents have recently lost spouses or partners, too, which adds an extra layer of stress on everyone.
If there’s one positive about my mom’s longtime illness and sudden death, it’s that I have an idea of how to pay Lisa’s support forward without adding to friends’ emotional overloads. Here’s what I wish I’d done — and known — during those sad times.
1. Don’t always act brave.
When my mom was ill or needy, I pretended to take it in stride. Inside, I was falling apart. I wish I’d been more candid with my friends; at least then they’d have known why I was moody or canceled plans at the last minute. And they might have reached out with much-needed support.
Friends aren’t mind-readers. Many are afraid to intrude. Drop the false cheer, and reach out for support.
2. Just say no.
A longtime friend and I had made plans to take a vacation together. We had no way of knowing that my dad would die two weeks before we planned to leave. My friend piled massive amounts of guilt on me when I wanted to cancel — even though I explained my fragile emotional state. I went on the vacation and was miserable.
Go ahead and let people say you’re selfish — follow your psychological compass.
3. Explain your need to vent.
As much as friends love you, they’re busy. A private, hour-long chat is a luxury for many of us. That’s why you need to be honest with your friends and explain that you just need to talk, for a long time. That way, they can carve out some time for you.
I was lucky that Lisa often made time to talk to me, even when I called her multiple times a day. Looking back, I wish I was as candid with other friends about my needs. That would have put less strain on Lisa and given me other emotional support outlets.
One other tip: Let your friends know you aren’t looking for them to solve your problems. That will make the conversations less stressful for both of you.
4. Ask for help with small tasks.
The mom of one of my neighbors is in hospice. Whenever I go to the grocery store or dry cleaner, I volunteer to run errands for her. When her smoke detector went crazy and wouldn’t stop beeping, my husband went over and diagnosed the problem.
Here’s the thing — she has rarely asked for this support. I wish she would; I wish I had. Learn from our mistakes.
5. Be your own friend.
The carpet won’t disintegrate if you forego vacuuming and use the time to take a quick nap. Your coworkers won’t hate you if you take a mental health day and spend the time watching old TV sitcoms. It’s not vital that you attend your friend’s book club meeting across town. Give yourself a pass and take time to do what you want, whenever you can. Even if that means watching TV.
Many of us (including me!) have tried to manage a parent’s challenges — whether from physical illness or mental health needs — on our own. Many of us don’t want to burden others. The problem is that attitude drains our own health and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to help others. Plus, it pushes friends away when you need them the most.
Some of us are blessed to have friends who can see our distress and step in. But don’t wait for that to happen. Reach out when you feel the need. You’ll be surprised at how readily most people support you and how your candor strengthens already healthy friendships.
This post was written by Nancy Dunham, a freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at NancyDWrites.