By: Valerie Geschwind

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Above are slippers my mom knitted for Ariel while she was in the hospital. She knew Ariel had poor circulation and Ariel was freezing and didn’t want to sleep with her Uggs on. Ariel was beyond grateful and amazed.

The first night I met Ariel, she was glowing.  Not like the type of external glow that is common in New York City, beautiful girls with perfect hair, make-up and pristine clothes.  She was gorgeous, but this was different.  It was a kind of glow that spilled from within.  It hit you when she looked at you, when she spoke, but especially when she laughed.  She grabbed my heart that night and I knew we would continue to be friends.

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Who would know that this glowing soul was sick?  Ariel was newly in remission when we met, but not for very long.  I’ve always considered myself to be a good friend.  I’ve been the person to run to friends’ houses with ice cream and macaroni and cheese post boyfriend break-ups, take calls at all hours when friend’s are going through a hard time, and show up for important celebrations no matter what.  Being there for Ariel, my beautiful and lively friend couldn’t be hard, right?  Supporting a friend through cancer couldn’t be that different from supporting friends through any other life-challenge.  I felt up for it!

I was wrong.

Initiating conversation when we were apart always felt tricky.  What do you say to someone who is terminally ill?  “How are you?” I mean, the ‘terminally ill’ part makes it pretty obvious.

Knowing the ‘right thing’ to say was just as difficult.  What is the right thing to say? I tried to give the same advice as I would give to anyone else.  When Ariel was having trouble with some friends, I gave the advice I would have given to anyone else.  It didn’t go so well.

Thank goodness Ariel has always been honest.  She let me know when I slipped up or made errors in judgment, even when I have the very best of intentions.  After all of the slip-ups, here is my advice. It won’t come as a ‘Top 10 Rules for Supporting the Terminally Ill’ because I think there is just one.  Here it is: let them take the lead.

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Yep, that’s right folks.  Let your friend or family member guide you.  This was hard for me to learn.  In most of my relationships, I take the lead in an attempt to take pressure off of a suffering friend.  In my experience, this is not the best bet when supporting a friend or family member with a terminal illness. Let them be in charge or when they want to talk to you, how often, and especially, about what.  When Ariel wanted to talk about her health, she did.  When she wanted to sit and make jokes about popular TV shows, she did.

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When she needed to vent about friends, she did!  If I listened long enough, she would even lead me to the type of words she needed from me in response.

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When Ariel wanted advice, she would tell me about a situation and then ASK for advice.  When she just wanted me to simply listen, she would guide me.  I know this all seems silly and obvious.  But, for me, it wasn’t as first because that wasn’t how I was used to existing in the world.

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Being part of a support system for someone who is terminally ill will never be easy.  How could it be?  But just because someone is terminally ill, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they need and how they want support to come.  This IS about them.  Not you.  Make that clear by letting them lead the way.

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