I don’t remember when exactly, that my dear friend Kari shared the news that her five-year old son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (T1D). I know everything began to unravel on Christmas Eve 2015 when she took him to the ER only to discover T1D as the underlying cause of his symptoms. To top it all off, her mom had recently passed away and she was hosting her extended family post-funeral and for the holidays. Needless to say, she had a lot on her plate. All I knew is that she was hurting, I was thousands of miles away and that I felt there was very little I could do to help.
Looking back, I am more clearly able to see how I was helpful and the ways in which I was not. What I learned is that when a friend is going through something life-altering, the best thing you can do for them is be a life-preserver. The only function of a life-preserver is to show up during a crisis, encircle the one you love and bear witness to their pain and process. It sounds simple, but it often times isn’t. We are taught at an early age that we must fix what is broken. When someone else’s pain seems unbearable it’s natural to want to come in with the save. Instead of letting that person navigate their own escape from the choppy waters of crisis, we are inclined to yell encouragement, advice and worst of all, completely bypass their inevitable suffering and yank them to shore. We believe if we can pull them to safety, even if they are kicking and screaming, then all is right with the world.
This approach may work in certain situations, but mostly it doesn’t. The more we try to fix, the more we deny our friend their experience. I can’t imagine someone denying my right to be fearful for my child if they are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. I kept that in mind as I offered Kari love, support and encouragement. I think I did a good job of this, but know I could have done better. In the future, my only goal will be to encircle and support. It isn’t easy helplessly watching someone you care about crumble at times, but they will pick up the pieces. You aren’t truly helping if you try to pick up the pieces before they are ready. That first year post-diagnosis, Kari mostly shared the overwhelming burden and fatigue of managing her son’s blood sugar 24/7. When I did finally have a chance to see her in person about six months in, I could see she was still drowning. This is when being a life-preserver for her was most critical. It was obvious the initial shock of her ‘new normal’ had worn off, and she was deep into the hard phase of acceptance. I hugged her a lot. I let her cry. And, sometimes I would cry, too.
Fast forward a year later from that visit. As I went to check my email inbox I stumbled upon something extraordinary. Kari had emailed me about a cute pair of wedge sandals! This may seem insignificant but what did this show me? She had enough emotional reserves left over in her day to ponder fashion choices. It was one of the best emails I’ve gotten from her in recent memory. My friend was getting back to life. Sure, T1D is still a huge part of her every day experience, but now it’s not the only thing. Kari, as well as her marriage and her family, all seem stronger than I have ever seen them. In a way, this medical crisis has cemented the bond of their family. As her life-preserver, I am so grateful I’m still here floating around to get to witness the awesome beauty of this.
Now that you know the true secret to supporting a friend in crisis, which is to simply show up and be a compassionate witness, it’s also helpful to know that there are resources available to help. In this particular instance, the T1D community is top-notch in offering support and education. All of this wonderful support is simply a click away. As Kari continues to grow in her role as a mom of a T1D kid, she shared with me a few of her favorite websites and resources which I have listed below. Click on the title of each website to learn more:
- children with DIABETES Online Community: This is a website started by a dad back when there weren’t a lot of resources for a family dealing with T1D. His passion for sharing information and building a community of support eventually led him, along with another T1D parent, to create the week-long Friends for Life conference. Kari and her family have attended this amazing conference two years in a row. Not only do they learn about cutting edge medical advances for T1D kids, they have made tremendous and long-lasting connections to other families sharing the same journey.
- JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation): As quoted directly from their website: “We are committed to funding the development of new therapies and treatments to keep people with T1D healthier, longer, until a cure is found.”
- diaTribe: This is an empowering website that has a wealth of information regarding living with diabetes. Their goal is to share knowledge so families, such as those living with T1D, can advocate for themselves and remain hopeful for their future.
These resources are the tip of the iceberg. Whenever life challenges you, your friends or your family, there is always help available. It may take some time to process through what is happening, but when you or they are ready, there will be something useful to be found.
The truth is, sometimes friends aren’t strong enough to be our life-preservers and that’s okay.
We have what it takes to save ourselves.
Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent
A special thanks to my friend, Kari, who willingly let me share her story to help others feel less alone. I’m so proud of you.