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Empty Couch Cushions

About a year ago, well nine months ago, but it feels like a year, I wrote about how to love a family with cancer. We had just become “a family with cancer” and that was, and remains, such a strange and surreal becoming for us. But there we were, and a year later--fifteen months later, to be precise--here we are.

A family with cancer. A family in recovery; I am so tired.

But we are a family with cancer with a village. We have people. And those people lift us up and love us in ways that are just so unbelievable to me. They love us so completely and so well. We have learned from them how to love others. We have, in the last year and change, learned that there are families with cancer with no village. After what we have navigated together, this is inconceivable to me, but I know it to be true.

When I wrote about loving families that are navigating hard things, my essential thesis was that clicking the “hug” button on Facebook or leaving a praying hands emoji isn’t enough. I still stand by this. My call to action for each of you was that you step in and do something. Anything. Literally anything to support the family in need.

And do you know the types of reactions I got? First, almost 500 people read my blog post. It remains one of my more popular posts to date. So many people reference this blog post when we talk,and they tell me that it has inspired them to get out there and do something for a family in need. I am so glad. It has also helped us as a family to model the behavior we hope for in others. It has helped us to remember that families need more than thoughts and prayers in their times of need. We’ve also experienced some opposite reactions to this post: more on that later.

Families going through hard things need people to show up.

In the last fifteen months, I have learned what showing up looks like, and I want to share with you one of the most impactful lessons I have learned about grief and doing hard things--because maybe you need it, too. Maybe you’re going through a hard thing and this will make sense to you.

Or, maybe someone you know is going through a hard thing and you just don’t know how to help them.

The Actons are recovering from cancer--and as we make incremental positive progress, we are still home often, there are still days we need to be home because it is the best place for us to be, and going places still requires a good amount of planning. In July, we bought a new couch. A big one. It’s super comfortable, and it holds lots of butts. How does that connect, you might ask?

Well, let me tell you.

First, let’s touch on recovery. We are all recovering. All of us--especially Jon. But we are all recovering. I find myself sleeping more often lately, and I think it’s because I’m finally allowing myself to rest and recover from the trauma of caregiving and the fear that I’ve lived in for so long.

Our boys are recovering, also. They faced the fear of losing their dad, and I think in many ways they still do. But they are recovering, too. The couch is a really good place for them to do this. On my brand new couch, there are enough cushions for lounging, sleeping, and recovering for all of us at any time that we might need it.

On my favorite days, the couch cushions are filled with blankets, pillows, and people--people who are resting and recovering, people who are cherishing time together and not taking one minute that we have together for granted. Recovery is messy and complicated and it isn’t always linear, but we are doing it and we are doing it together. Our recovery includes the four people who live here, and some days it also includes many visitors who stop by just to check on us.

My couch has space for their butts, too.

And I guess, if we get right down to it, that’s the entire point of loving on people who are going through hard things Part Two. It’s sort of about where your butt is, isn’t it? Stay with me for a second. Because I know right now you’re like….uhhh….why is this crazy woman talking about her couch and my butt?

I am talking about your butt because when my couch is empty--when the couches of the people who are going through the hard things are empty--that is when the hard things are the hardest. Going through hard things is always easier when you have someone who is willing to come over and sit with you. Hard things are hard, in part because they are uncomfortable. Whether that discomfort comes from pain or heartbreak or awkwardness or whatever, there is a certain level of discomfort that comes from the hard thing.

And for whatever reason, people have a tendency to retreat when the discomfort moves in. It’s human nature to enter fight or flight no matter the crisis, whether it belongs to them or not. Discomfort activates the amygdala, whether it’s our discomfort or someone else’s, and when we aren’t sure what to say, or when we’re glad something isn’t happening to us, we have a tendency to retreat. I understand those feelings because I’ve had them so many times in my own life. I totally get it. I am ashamed to say that I, too, have retreated from someone else's hard thing. In my old life. Before I really understood.

So, here’s something that happened as a result of my previous blog post: people that were our friends for 30 years stopped talking to us. This is a true thing that is hard to share, but our hard thing made them uncomfortable, and our call-to-action felt a little too scary for them, I guess, and they removed themselves from our lives. And that stung. But you’s OK. Because for every person we haven’t heard from, five more have stepped up and cared for us in ways we couldn’t ever repay. For every vanishing act, someone has plopped their butt cheeks onto one of our couch cushions and stayed.

They have stayed, and that is the beauty.

The beauty that we have found in our pain, my friends, has been in those who have walked into our house and sat down on the couch with nothing. We haven’t always needed meals or stuff; we have had so many of those we are thankful for, but the thing we have needed the most is for our people to stay. We have needed our people to sit their butts on our couch cushions, ask us how we are, and just talk. Or not talk. Sometimes there aren’t words for our hard thing. Sometimes there aren’t words for your hard thing. But there is always, always a couch cushion and a cup of coffee and the thickness of uncomfortable silence that is better shared than spent alone.

The problem with hard things is that too many people are afraid to ask if they can come just sit with you. The problem with hard things is that too many people are afraid of the thickness and the heaviness of the air when so many words are floating around, and yet there is nothing to say except, “I’m sorry.” The problem with hard things is that too many people are afraid to fill those empty couch cushions with their presence and just be there taking up space.

So many afternoons have been spent the last fifteen months with people asking if they can drop by for a visit. Yes. Please do that. Please keep asking to do that. While we are getting back to what will forever be a new normal for us--our old lives will never exist again--we will need our people. And we will keep being that for you, if you will allow us to be. We want to put our butts on your couch and sit in your discomfort, too.

Because the other problem with hard things is that we can’t do them alone, and so my new call-to-action for you is this: please do not let someone’s couch cushions sit empty. Please, fill those cushions with your butts. Please listen to the uncomfortable silence with them; you may never say a word, but your presence in the discomfort will mean more than any words you could ever say.

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