After a lifetime of independence, it can be tough to age or get ill and start to need help. So many of us fear becoming a burden so we resist asking for help. But at what point will our independence become a problem? What's the difference between asking ...
After a lifetime of independence, it can be tough to age or get ill and start to need help. So many of us fear becoming a burden so we resist asking for help. But at what point will our independence become a problem? What's the difference between asking for help and being a burden?
Hello, kind people! I'd like to have a little conversation with you today about the difference between asking for help and being a burden.
Hello and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I'm Cianna Stewart and I'm going to die someday. I've cared for people as they died and have supported grieving friends, both emotionally and practically. I've seen the impact that death has on the people left behind and how much worse that experience is when the grief is complicated by having to deal with a messy, legal, financial, or physical aftermath. I don't want to do that to the people I love when I eventually die. And I don't want you to either, because spoiler alert) you are going to die someday, too. So let's all do what we can to make key decisions now in order to be kinder to the people we'll leave behind. That's a dying kindness.
This is on my mind because I recently went to the memorial of a friend who had chosen not to tell most of us that she had cancer. And I learned it was because she didn't want us to worry. And she's a very independent person and I can certainly understand. And frankly I can relate to it.
And at the same time, I was pretty bummed out to hear it. I mean, some of what I was experiencing was certainly selfish, like, I wanted to have the chance to be able to see her, to give some help to say goodbye, all of that kind of stuff.
And I also recognize that it’s an incredibly personal decision. Sometimes people wouldn't want to have to decide who to tell or, you know, worry about their friends coming in and just overwhelming everything (if you know, a lot of people that can certainly be a problem). And at the same time, I'm watching some of my other friends who are going through chemo doing it very much in community, and calling on their friends to offer support, or even just leave messages on Facebook or just share funny stories or send music or send good vibes or whatever. Just keeping people in the loop.
And of course, there's no perfect way to do this. You know, it's not a perfect situation. It's a very imperfect situation. It's a pretty sucky situation.
I know that I'm thinking about this because I'm somebody who has been super independent my entire life—pretty much to a fault really, but a lot of times just out of necessity. I'm generally somebody who others have called on for support, and not so much somebody who asks for support. But there were a couple of times where I learned some really powerful lessons around this lessons that made me think, and that stayed with me to this day.
The first time was after a really horrible and unexpected breakup of a relationship that I had committed to, to the point of being ready to move overseas. So I had given up my stuff, I had quit my job, I had given up my apartment, I had said goodbye to my friends. I had done all of this stuff, that then to have it fall apart suddenly a week before I was supposed to get on the plane, it left me completely shattered and I just didn't know what to do. I was totally lost and my friends really stepped up. They reached out to me, knowing what had happened, and they invited me into their homes, and they helped me find a job, and they just sat with me and hung out while I was crying or not speaking or whatever it was, and they just stayed. And I remember so clearly one of my friends, when I was staying at her house, she looks over at me on the day before I was going to be moving over to somebody else's house and said, “Thank you for letting me be your friend.”
And I was like, “What? We're friends. We've been friends for years.” And she says, “Yeah, but you usually offer support and you don't really allow us to give to you. And it feels really good to be able to give back to you. So: thanks. Thanks for letting us be your friends.”
And I just was stunned. I just sat back and thought about that for decades. Until now, really. Thinking about how friendship is forged in this reciprocal way and that the people that you feel closest to and trust the most are the ones that you have risked something with. And given them your trust and then they follow through by helping taking care of you, just being with you, or just not running away from whatever it is that you're facing, from sticking with you. And then that trust builds more trust. And then that feedback loop is wonderful and reinforcing, and it strengthens your relationship. And, you know, those are the kinds of things that can't happen if it's only one way. So I've carried that with me as a little talisman to remind me that everything has to be both ways.
Yeah. I say that I carried it with me, but then when I actually had a blood clot and was pretty freaked out, I, I took it upon myself to drive myself to the hospital and I didn'”O want to bother anybody. And you know I was afraid, but I was also like, oh, you know, it's 11:00 PM on a weeknight. I shouldn't call anybody. Everybody's going to bed.” And so I just drove myself to the hospital and stayed in the emergency room all night. And I was by myself and it was horrible.
And it was another situation where afterwards my friends came over and this time they just yelled at me. It was actually kind of amazing because I think that yelling at me was, you know, them acting out of fear, but it was also the only thing that really got through to me as like, what was I doing? What was I thinking? How could I think so little of them and our friendship that I would think that it was better to risk my own life, or to just put myself through this emotional torture by myself, that that was better somehow. I thought that was better than calling somebody and asking them if they give up some sleep to drive me to the emergency room. I mean, come on.
I'm sure you're listening to this story and just laughing and just going like, “Oh, Cianna. Seriously? Are you kidding me? I thought you learned that friendship is reciprocal.” And then I didn't remember it that night because I didn't want to bother anybody. I didn't want anybody to worry. I didn't want to be a burden. All of those kinds of things running through my head.
And now I'm the caregiver for an extremely independent person. And I talk with some of my other friends who are also caregivers for people who are getting older or dying and who are extremely independent and are uncomfortable with asking for help. And they need help. They will wait until it's too late or it gets really desperate or they just make it really hard to offer them help.
And I find it so much more stressful as a caregiver and my friends do too. And then I start taking lessons. I look at my aunt and I look at my friend's parents and relatives and I think, “Oh my God, I'm going to be one of those people. I'm going to be somebody who is aging, dying, who is needing help, but refusing to ask for it, or refusing to accept it, or accepting it reluctantly and making it not feel good to give to them any more to give to me anymore.”
If I don't learn this lesson of how to ask for help and how to receive it graciously, how to fully appreciate the gift that somebody is giving me by offering to help me—that that's such a gift—then I'm just going to be terrible. Then I'm going to be doing something that is deeply unkind. And the whole point of this entire podcast is to try to figure out ways that we can be kind as we're dying, in our dying process.
And I know that most of the time I've been focusing on what we leave behind when we die, but there's also this whole run-up, this whole time beforehand that can last for decades, where we can start to prepare where we can, learn the things that we need to learn. Where we can change the things that we need to change. We can ask for the things that we need to have help on.
So I'm just thinking about that a lot right now. It's not a burden to need help. It's a burden to need help and refuse it, and to make things worse. What is being a burden is to not be grateful for the help that you get, to make demands that are unreasonable, or that don't take into account the impact of our requests on somebody else.
But if we go into something knowing what we're asking, looking to distribute the impact or the cost of it across more than one person, if we're grateful and appreciative while we're receiving the help, if we recognize that other people doing caregiving for us, that other people offering us help, is them giving us a gift– then that can make things so much easier.
And it can turn that experience—the experience of aging, of dying, of becoming more dependent—it can turn that into a time where you'll get closer, where you actually start to be vulnerable and let people in, that you allow people to see you in all of your imperfections and fears and all of that. The kinds of things that we need to show to each other in order to, like, truly let people into our hearts, for us to be truly in their hearts, for them to know that they've done all they could before we die so that they can rest easy whenever they think back on us and our time together. And our final days, I mean, how much more glorious would it be for everybody who we rely on to just know that they gave what they could. And that it was received well as a gift. And that they can feel loving and not resentful. Or not frustrated or not angry or not regretful. They can just feel loving and confident about what they did.
So to me, the separation between asking for help and being a burden, it's not really about the amount of time or cost (although that's certainly a big part of it, and I'm going to be talking about that more in the future) but it's not only about time and cost and, and energy level and all that kind of stuff. A lot of it, a lot of the difference, a lot of what makes people look back and feel good about something is to know how connected they were while they were giving the gift of caring, and to know that they did what they could and that it was received as an expression of love. And why would I want to deny that? So this is just a reminder to myself, and an offering to you, to look at the ways in which you and I still need to learn how to ask for help, and how to properly show our gratitude when it's given. We should start practicing that now, because by the time we need it, that's not going to be any time to learn.
Thanks for listening today. Go to DyingKindness.com to get transcripts, related books, and other resources. The music is from Blue Dot Sessions. Everything else was done by me. I’m Cianna Stewart, and I’m going to die someday, but hopefully not before I learn how to ask for and receive help.
Today’s death reading is from “The Art of Dying Well” by Katy Butler.
We live in a society that fetishizes independence—a terrific goal for twenty-year-olds. but in later life, interdependence is well worth cultivating. Have you mostly been a “taker,” and “exchanger,” or a “giver”? If you’ve been a taker, think about becoming an exchanger—one who conscientiously keeps track and returns favors, even if mechanically. If you’ve been an exchanger, consider giving once in a while without thought of return. If you’re exhausted by over-giving, consider cutting back on time spent with takers. You need reciprocal relationships now, not people who drain you.
I’ve noticed that people who live well in old age, and die well at home, have often found a “tribe” among their fellow quilters, singers, or church group members. When they get sick, the clan shows up to help, spreading the burden of caregiving beyond a single exhausted family member.
Above all, I hope you find ways to connect with others that give your life joy and meaning. [...] “Elders worthy of emulation,” Doug von Koss once wrote, “know they will soon lose life—and so they generously give it away to those around them.”