As a fisherman waits patiently for the fish to bite, Tavurvur belches ash and pumice into the twilight. Papua New Guinea, 2008. Image credit: Taro Taylor.

the test results for my father in law show that he has terminal cancer. I want to write about this here but am suffused by a realisation that much of this is not my stuff to discuss. so I will feel my way through as best I can, limiting my thoughts here to how the situation affects me and my sobriety.

I am doing ok. sadder than I thought I was going to be, perhaps, but less anxious. we have had eight days of waiting for the test results and in that time I found the concept of anticipatory anxiety very helpful (which I wrote about here). in that post I quote from a article which says,

anticipatory anxiety is not a true predictor of how much anxiety we will feel in the actual situation.  Although it is impossible to predict with total accuracy, the fact is that 95% of the time, anticipatory anxiety is much greater than the anxiety we experience when we actually make contact with what frightens us.’

I find this concept hugely calming when the dark clouds loom large overhead.

in my last post I wrote that I was looking for support from those who understood this position, and afterwards I thought, and who are they, exactly?

one online resource I found helpful was the cancer section of the website, which went into the right level of detail for me about the specific cancer which my father in law is experiencing. another good website is who also offer a helpline to cancer specialist nurses.

but possibly my most valuable resource is the writings of Kate Gross, whom I first came across in 2014 in this Telegraph article, ‘What to say to a 35-year-old mother dying of cancer’.  I read the article, and then her wonderful blog in which she documented the inexorable progress of The Nuisance, and then her luminous, hilarious, heart-rending book.

in the Telegraph article she includes the concept of the support spiral, starting in the centre with the cancer sufferer, then spiralling outwards through partner, children, family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, friends of friends and the world at large. she says:

Where you sit in the spiral defines how you behave. The rule is simple: you provide support to those closer to the centre than you. And you expect support from those further out than you. So, to put it bluntly, you can only emotionally dump on people in circles further out than your own. 

Personally, I’m not averse to being wept on (it makes me feel special and a bit saintly) but in general, save your tears. Of course you are sad that I am dying, but most of the time I just don’t need to hear you snuffle snottily that you are so devastated that I am going to leave my children motherless. Hold it together, and weep on someone further outside your circle. And think about what you can do – practically, emotionally or otherwise – to support someone closer to the epicentre. If not the patient, their partner, mother, children, best friend. This is a powerful and important rule and I suspect you will find it applicable to almost any family crisis you find yourself involved in, whether you are rocked by the blast yourself or just dazed by distant aftershocks. 

Once you have steeled yourself not to cry, got over the threshold and said something to us, the real fun begins. Because actually, things haven’t changed. Life has to go on, and no family with small children can exist permanently in a bubble of pain, whether pre-emptive or actual. And we have chosen to angle our chairs towards the sunlight, following the words of Jane Hirshfield’s precious poem: “I moved my chair into the sun/ I sat in the sun/ The way hunger is moved when called fasting.” 

So, as you sit in the sun with us we don’t need you to be different, to suddenly speak only of serious matters or hold our words in some precious reverence. We are not made of glass; in fact, this experience reveals our family has a nugget of pure, rough diamond at our core. And you are still the same friends and family we have always loved, and what we need are people who will go on loving us.”

Kate Gross on assignment in Africa

Of course, there are also practical things you can do. But those will differ from family to family and you will have to work hard to find out what they are, to establish a rhythm of assistance which supports but doesn’t intrude. There is a wonderful book called What Can I do to Help? by Deborah Hutton, which I highly recommend. 

The key is to ask what we need and if you are met with silence, make suggestions. And then ask again in six months’ time, because the chances are that that is the point at which everyone else will have stopped offering help and your support will be really needed. And if you still don’t get an answer? Well, maybe just do it. Managing all the help that is offered in a time of crisis is tiring. Sometimes I just want someone to sweep in uninvited and quietly do the ironing.”

I was going to write ‘so my primary role is to support my husband’, but that’s not quite true. that is my role in this situation, but my role in my own life is to continue to try to bring my best self out to play in any and all situations. and to do that, I have to be sober.

so it is still sober first, here. for the record, I had zero urge to drink on the day that we heard the news, which is a relief. ongoing self-care going on here, reaching out.

thanks for listening, sober compadres. you are just the best, you know? Prim xx