Helping Others Overcome Obstacles

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Being equipped to overcome obstacles on your bear hunt is one thing. But what about when it’s a loved one facing a major life challenge? How can you help? Below are some ideas to get you started.

Pitch in. During my time as an outpatient, Wednesdays were chemo days. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and battle Toronto gridlock from the north end of the city to Princess Margaret Hospital, where I’d spend all day. Most of it was spent waiting. Waiting to get my number called for blood work. Waiting to see the doctor at the clinic. Waiting for my chemo to arrive. Waiting for the chemo to finish. Waiting for the nurse to stick a needle in my butt. Waiting for my prescriptions. And then, finally, waiting once again in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get home. By the time I dragged myself through my front door, I was exhausted and starting to feel the effects of the chemicals that had just been pumped into me.

In one of my email updates to friends and families, I happened to mention how Wednesdays were typically pizza nights because I was just too pooped to make food for myself. Shortly after, my friend Janele told me she had arranged to have meals dropped off at my place. Amazing. Having one less thing to worry about on Wednesdays was wonderful.

There are many ways you can pitch in when someone is going through a challenging or busy time. Whether it’s mowing their lawn, dropping off some soup, volunteering at their launch party or helping them assemble their wedding invitations, a little help can go a long way.

Be there. “I don’t know what to say.” “I feel so helpless.” “I wish there was something I could do.” We’ve all been there. That awkward moment when you’re at a loss for words and feeling completely useless. But sometimes the thing people need most is a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on. You don’t have to come equipped with answers, pearls of wisdom or a magic bullet to solve the problem. Just be there. I heard a story about a friend of mine who worked as a hospital chaplain. One patient lashed out at her, questioning why she was even there. After all, there was nothing she could do to fix the patient’s terminal illness. Her response? I’m not here to  you out of hell. I’m here to keep you company while you’re going through it.

Give them space. On the flip side, it’s easy to swing too far the other way—to smother a person in well-meaning attempts to help them. Like everything in life, it’s all about balance. When I was in the hospital, I had to learn to say no to people who wanted to visit. Not because I didn’t want to see them, but because otherwise I’d never have any time for myself. Be there for them, but respect the fact that they might want some alone time.

Connect them with the right people. You might not be able to directly help, but do you know somebody who could? Leverage your connections. It was my friend’s mom who connected me with the doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital. And my brother who recommended a nutritionist friend to help me with my post-transplant diet. Whether you’re helping your friend’s struggling start-up business by introducing him to your industry contacts or telling a co-worker about a great physiotherapist who worked wonders on your shoulder, rack your brain for helpful people you know.

Stay positive. People going through tough times are wrestling with all sorts of doubt, uncertainty and fear. Help them through that by being a positive influence. During my first month-long stay at Princess Margaret, I hit a wall and was feeling pretty low. Early one morning, before breakfast had even arrived, I got a knock at my door and a co-worker of mine poked his head in the room. At first I was annoyed at the early morning and unscheduled pop-in. I was still in my gotchies after all.

But then we got chatting about his dad, who was also in the hospital undergoing a similar treatment as me. The nonchalant and positive way he talked about his dad’s procedures, and the confidence he had that everything was going to be all right, filled me with renewed hope and optimism about my own chances. It ended up being just the wake-up call I needed.

Enthusiasm and positive energy are contagious and can help keep your loved one from getting too low. That doesn’t mean being the “everything-is-sunshine-and-unicorns” person that people want to slap. It just means offering encouragement instead of discouragement, optimism instead of pessimism and constructive feedback instead of harsh criticism.

Get creative. In the section on coming up for air (Lesson #2), I mentioned the human art show my friends and family performed for my birthday. Another uplifting and awesome thing they pulled together for me was a “Book of Encouragement.”

My sister Becky coordinated this project while I was in hospital for the bone marrow transplant. Becky went around to my aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, grandma and parents and invited each of them to create a page for the book, wishing me well on my recovery and health journey.

Like the birthday surprise, I didn’t know about the book until Becky delivered it to me in my hospital room. And like the birthday surprise, it gave my spirits such a great and much-needed boost. I laughed myself silly (a dangerous thing to do when dealing with the menace of ferocious diarrhoea) reading the many hilarious and creative entries and felt my resolve strengthen as I read the many inspirational and motivational notes.

If you’re looking for ways to help someone overcome an obstacle, get creative. Send a fun e-card. Film a video of friends giving encouraging shout-outs. Bake a good-luck cake. Plaster their bedroom with motivational quotes. Host a pasta dinner fundraiser.

Distract them. Everybody needs to come up for air once in a while. It might seem counterintuitive, but taking a buddy out for a few beers when they’re completely buried with work may be the best thing for them. The poopy rainstorm I got caught in may have been crappy (pun intended), but it was exactly the distraction mom and I needed from the stress of the situation. Just remember: It’s a fine line between distraction and disruption, so tread carefully.

Rally around a cause. When someone you care about is going through a tough time—especially when it’s health-related—the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. After I was diagnosed, I told Dr. Lipton that my friends were eager to help and asked if he had any suggestions. “Tell them to donate blood,” he said.

Rallying around a cause for your loved one is a great way to make important contributions. It could be spearheading a blood drive or signing up for a charity fun run in honour of your friend with cancer. It could be writing your MP or raising awareness through the media about the mental illness your dad is dealing with. It could be volunteering at a women’s shelter to show your support for a co-worker getting out of an abusive relationship.

Of course, you don’t have to know someone to help them overcome obstacles. The world is full of challenges and people who could use a helping hand. Whether you’re volunteering with a community organization, donating to disaster relief overseas or simply offering your seat to the pregnant woman on the bus, there are always ways to help.

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CONCLUSION

I celebrated St. Paddy’s Day 2009 by having the IV port in my chest removed. By the summer I was able to do 10 push ups without collapsing. And by my first transplant anniversary, I was given the thumbs up to return to work.

My immune system will always be less than spectacular, and I still need to go to Princess Margaret a couple times a year for blood work. In those regards, the bear hunt continues. But the trail’s gotten much smoother. And while I’m not naive enough to believe that I won’t encounter major obstacles in the future, I’m thrilled to have successfully overcome the ones I have.

It takes more than luck to navigate through the wildernesses of our lives. It’s not enough to flip a coin and hope for the best. A successful bear hunt depends on so much more. It requires teamwork, balance, flexibility, positive thinking and a whole lot of hard work.

Lady Luck played her part in my own hunt, no doubt. But more important, I think, was my decision to take charge and do everything in my power to surround myself with the right people and arm myself with the right weapons to survive.

Whatever obstacles you face on your own personal bear hunt, remember: It’s not the size of the obstacle that matters. It’s how you respond to it that really counts.

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