The following excerpt is chapter 2 of Loving Your Friend through Cancer: Moving beyond “I’m Sorry” to Meaningful Support by Marissa Henley.
Knowing Your Role as a Friend or Acquaintance
Our doorbell rang every Tuesday night at 5:30 for months. The young man at the door handed over a large half cheese, half pepperoni pizza without asking for payment. For the three young, picky eaters who lived under our roof, the weekly pizza delivery was a dream come true.
This kind gesture during my illness was arranged and paid for by a group of my husband’s colleagues. To this day, I still don’t know their names. They were not in our inner circle of friends. But they reached in from our outer circle of support and made a signifi cant impact on our family’s life for months.
If one of these men had offered to give me a ride to chemo, it would have felt awkward. I didn’t want them to fold my laundry or clean my toilets. But they knew that as acquaintances, one of their primary roles was to provide food, and they did so with generosity and thoughtfulness.
Knowing where you fall in your friend’s network of friends can help you determine the type of support to provide. She needs your support, regardless of whether you are in her inner circle of closest friends, a middle circle of friends and close acquaintances, or the outer circle of acquaintances. But the way you will support her should vary depending on how close your friendship is. Think of your friend as the center—the one who is experiencing the health crisis—and consider honestly where you stand in relation to her.
Determining Your Circle
In our social-media-obsessed culture, we often have a skewed perspective of the closeness of our friendships. Just because you know what your friend ate for dinner last night doesn’t mean you are in her small circle of best friends. Take time to realistically consider where you fall within your friend’s circles.
- How often do you communicate outside of social media?
- How often do you socialize?
- Do you share personal information with each other beyond superficial facts and opinions?
- Did she call you with the news of her diagnosis, or did you hear the news from others who are closer to her?
The inner circle includes her closest friends. Inner-circle friends talk, text, or visit frequently. Deeper discussions about your family, emotions, joys, and struggles form an essential aspect of your friendship. You know each other’s loved ones well. You are familiar with each other’s likes, dislikes, favorites, preferences, and personalities. When your basement floods, your baby won’t sleep, or your teenager makes you crazy, you’re in it together.
The middle circle includes friends with significant common interests. If you socialize occasionally, have more than a superficial relationship, or overlap in multiple spheres of life, you are probably in the middle circle. You may also be a middle-circle friend if you were in her inner circle in a previous season of life but don’t communicate on a weekly basis anymore.
Middle-circle friends have a significant level of common interest or large areas of overlap in their lives. Maybe you’ve been in a small group together at church, your kids play together frequently in the neighborhood, or you enjoy a common hobby. You share personal information beyond what you would share with an acquaintance, but you probably aren’t the first friend she would call in a crisis.
The outer circle includes acquaintances, online friends, and friends-of-friends who rally with support. If you know her well from one sphere of life but rarely socialize outside that sphere, you are probably an outer-circle friend. You chat after church on Sunday or at the gym. You keep in touch sporadically, but you don’t see each other beyond that one place where your lives overlap. You may relate primarily using social media. You know where she took her last vacation, but you don’t know her latest personal struggle.
To summarize, you can use this handy test to know your circle. Let’s talk about your friend’s dog for a minute:
- If you know from firsthand experience that your friend has a dog, the dog’s name, and what the dog did last week to make your friend crazy, you’re an inner-circle friend.
- If you know the dog’s name and have met the dog, you’re a middle-circle friend.
- If the only reason you know that your friend has a dog is because she posts about the dog on social media, you’re an outer-circle friend.
If you’ve decided you’re an outer-circle friend, don’t put this book down! All the circles of friends have important roles to play. Remember our weekly pizza delivery? The population of someone’s inner circle is small by nature, and the middle and outer circles are larger. It’s likely that you will be in the middle or outer circles of most people who you know with cancer. But the support that you provide from those circles is valuable and critically important.
Once you’ve determined which circle most accurately describes your friendship, consider how your circle affects the support you should provide. Keep in mind that by showing up and supporting her consistently, you may find yourself moving inward among her circles of friends.
When you’re thirty-four years old and are praying for your husband’s next wife, you need a friend to share that pain with you. One early morning the week after my diagnosis, I sat curled up on my friend’s sofa, dressed in sweatpants with my bare feet tucked underneath me. We wrapped our hands around mugs of hot coffee and cried. I told her I wanted my husband to remarry quickly if I died. I confessed that I had been praying for God to provide a second wife for him and a stepmom for my kids. I asked her to speak up and let others know my wishes, so that no one would resent my husband if he started dating.
Having these gut-wrenching conversations is one of the roles of an inner-circle friend. Your friend needs a safe place to wrestle through her difficult emotions. Other primary responsibilities of inner-circle friends include
- making sacrifices in order to serve your friend during this season of suffering
- giving emotional and spiritual support
- organizing the logistical support of other friends and acquaintances
- providing childcare (since her children probably feel comfortable with you)
- relaying information and support between your friend with cancer and her friends in the middle and outer circles
- protecting your friend and her family from gossip
- meeting other needs that require a close friend, such as accompanying her to medical appointments
When I was sick, my inner-circle friends sacrificed their own time, comfort, and convenience in order to serve me for several months. They cleaned my house, accompanied me to medical appointments, and even flew to Houston to care for me during chemotherapy treatments there. They organized several months of meals and made sure our logistical needs were covered. They served as a gate between the larger circles and me—protecting my time and my privacy while relaying information and needs to others.
My husband and I decided that our young children should be cared for by people they knew well in order to preserve stability for them. So this responsibility fell mainly to my inner-circle friends. They created an emotionally safe place for my kids during a remarkably unpredictable time in their lives. They took them on field trips and built gingerbread houses with them. And they sent me photos of my smiling children to encourage me when I couldn’t be with them.
My inner circle also served as a safe place for my emotions. With courage and compassion, they walked with me though my dark days of struggling with the implications of my diagnosis. They spent time in understanding the details of the cancer I faced and my treatment plan. They knew the names of my doctors and when my next appointments were. One of my best friends even kept a spreadsheet of my platelet numbers for months, looking for trends and predicting when they would bottom out during each round of chemo. They were aware of how I was feeling on a daily basis—throughout almost a year of treatment and months into my survivorship. My inner-circle friends understand that today I still struggle with emotional implications of that phone call in 2010.
My closest friends could not do all this while also bringing me meals three times a week. And so my inner circle mobilized others in the outer circles to meet certain logistical needs. Because your friend probably doesn’t want an acquaintance cleaning her bathroom or folding her underwear, some logistical tasks need to be done by an inner- or middle-circle friend. But those on the inside should delegate and communicate many of the logistical needs to the outer circles and should give them an opportunity to serve. Consider setting up a meal calendar or an online sign-up list to organize her needs. Your friend probably doesn’t have the mental energy to devote to organizational tasks right now, and it will be difficult for her to know how to handle the onslaught of offers to help.
As an inner-circle friend, you will have information about your friend that is not meant for public knowledge. One of your roles is to protect your friend from gossip. She has a sensational, and potentially tragic, story. In our fallen nature, we are tempted to gossip about tragic stories. Resist the temptation to share information without your friend’s permission. In situations when you are unsure of what to share, it’s best to keep quiet or only share information that your friend has already shared publicly. If you hear others sharing gossip, step in and stand up for her.
Most importantly, ask your friend what she’d like you to say when people ask how she’s doing. If she’s struggling with how to respond, suggest a response and ask her what she thinks. For example, if she’d rather not share much information, suggest something simple: “Thank you for asking. She really would appreciate your prayers for her healing!” If she’d like to give a little more detail, suggest: “Thank you for asking. She starts treatment next month and would appreciate your prayers for complete restoration.” But remember, as an inner-circle friend, you should have a response ready because you are sure to receive questions about your friend’s condition. Knowing how you will respond will prevent you from being caught off guard, ensure that you honor your friend, and help you quell the rumor mill.
The Middle Circle
The text message was very specific: Callie, a young newlywed I had mentored the year before, let me know she had free time each morning before work. She asked if there were tasks she could cover on a regular basis—maybe she could drive one of my children to school?
This offer from a middle-circle friend met a huge need. One of my best friends (who had just had her fourth baby) was covering my share of our preschool carpool each week. So Callie began driving my son and my friend’s daughter to preschool once a week, lessening the burden on my close friend and me.
Just as the circles of friends form concentric circles around the cancer patient, the responsibilities of the circles of friends also form concentric circles. Imagine the territory of the inner-circle friends as being the patient and the inside of her home: her emotions, her children, and her toilets. The realm of the middle circle is just beyond the home: the yard, transportation, errands, communicating support via mail or electronic communication, and popping into the home for short visits.
Here are the primary responsibilities of middle-circle friends:
- providing emotional support by checking in with your friend at least weekly
- assisting with logistical needs such as yard work, transportation, meals, and errands
- visiting her
- assisting inner-circle friends with logistical responsibilities of a personal nature, if needed
You should check in with your friend on a regular basis—every week or so—and set reminders if you won’t remember on your own. But understand that you may not always hear back from her. Preface your messages by saying, “You don’t have to write me back.” Consistently and repeatedly let her know that you are thinking of her and care about her. Pray for your friend, let her know you are praying, and encourage her with promises from God’s Word.
Appropriate logistical tasks for middle-circle friends include doing yard work, bringing meals, getting cars serviced, providing transportation to medical appointments, and running errands. Offer to pick up groceries when you’re at the store, ask whether she needs anything from the pharmacy, or give her kids a ride to school or to extracurricular activities.
Chapter 7 includes a detailed list of logistical ways to serve your friend. Consider how you can serve her family, and make a specific offer of help. Depending on how private your friend is and how extensive her logistical needs are, you may or may not be called on for the inner-circle responsibilities.
Ask your friend if she’d enjoy visitors, but keep your visits short. Give her the opportunity to share how she’s feeling about her diagnosis, and let her guide the conversation. Follow her lead if she changes the subject—she may not feel comfortable baring her soul to you just yet.
The Outer Circle
When I was sick, I loved getting notes in the mail. I received a note from the mother of our friend Jennifer, whose husband attended school with my husband. And then I started getting notes from the friends of Jennifer’s mom. I’ve never met her, but she asked several people to pray for me and encourage me. I’m thankful for her willingness to reach out to a stranger with compassionate and sincere support. She is one example of the many outer-circle friends who intentionally showed their concern by sending me notes, prayers, and casseroles.
The outer circle includes acquaintances who rarely socialize outside of a common interest or who primarily interact online. As a member of the outer circle, you have these primary responsibilities:
- Bring food.
- Communicate support.
- Pray. Bring more food.
During my cancer treatment, my family received meals three times a week for eight months. That’s over a hundred meals, and it wouldn’t have happened without a large outer circle committed to feeding us! If your friend’s treatment lasts several months, you may need to bring her multiple meals.
You should regularly communicate your support—even if it is just a short message that says, “I’m praying for you today!” Remember that cancer can be isolating, and she needs to hear constantly from her crowd of cheerleaders. When I posted updates on my CaringBridge website, I was so encouraged by the guest-book messages. Along with social media comments, these guest-book messages were easy ways for others to communicate their support without requiring a response from me.
Please don’t stop praying for your friend. She needs your prayers for healing, strength, comfort, and peace. Consider organizing a prayer meeting and join with others to pray. Text or email your prayers to your friend. Add her name to the intercessory prayer list at your church. If she posts public social media updates, share them with others and ask for their prayers. Then let her know of your constant, continued prayers. I cherished every note I received that let me know someone was praying for me. (See chapter 10 for specific ways you can lift up your friend in prayer.)
Outer-circle friends can also rally to meet financial needs caused by your friend’s medical expenses or time away from work. A large network of supporters who each have a little to give can significantly ease your friend’s financial burdens. Be aware of fundraising efforts, and show your support by contributing if you are able. You might consider organizing others to give, whether through an online effort, a live event, or the sale of T-shirts or other products to raise money for her medical bills.
You might also look for ways to support inner-circle friends who are making frequent sacrifices in order to serve your friend. On occasion, a mutual friend provided a meal for my friend as she spent time caring for my children. It was a beautiful example of the body of Christ working together.
Remember, these guidelines are meant to be helpful ideas, not hard-and-fast rules. Use prayerful discernment to know how God is calling you to serve and support your friend. Ask your friend directly, or those in her inner circle, how you can serve most helpfully.
ACTION STEPS TO CONSIDER
☐ Consider realistically where you fall in her circle of friends.
☐ Use the examples given in this chapter to prayerfully consider how you can help with your friend’s unique needs.
☐ Avoid the urge to gossip or share what you know about your friend’s condition (unless she’s given you permission to share).
☐ Set a weekly alarm or calendar entry to remind you to communicate your love and support through a text, email, or phone call.
☐ Keep gently pursuing your friend, even if she doesn’t respond.
☐ Read Resource 2.1: A Biblical View of Community for a better understanding of the importance of the community surrounding your friend.
☐ If both you and she are married, go a step further and hand your husband Resource 2.2: A Letter to Your Husband about Her Husband, so that your family can get involved in supporting her family as well.
☐ Listen and provide encouragement as she grapples with difficult emotions.
☐ Ease the burden on your friend by serving as a point person to relay updates and needs to the middle and outer circles.
☐ Care for her children, provide stability and fun, and be aware of their emotional needs.
☐ Assist with logistical tasks that are private in nature, such as accompanying her to medical appointments.
☐ Check in frequently with your friend to communicate support without expecting a response.
☐ Perform tasks that are essential but slightly less personal, such as yard work, transportation, or running errands.
☐ Visit her, but keep it short.
☐ Communicate support in ways that don’t necessitate a response.
☐ Bring food, and do so repeatedly if her treatment is lengthy.
☐ Pray without ceasing.
☐ Participate in fundraising efforts.
☐ Support those in the inner and middle circles.