If someone you love has a life-threatening illness, it’s hard at times knowing what to say; what to do.
There’s the uncertainty about whether you should visit, the fear that your words might be inappropriate, the discomfort with facing life’s tough stuff.
But according to the Christian recording artist Darlene Zschech, it’s not that hard to be a source of encouragement and support to someone who’s suffering.
She should know; she faced her own mortality after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.
Just Be There; You Don’t Always Have To Say Something
In an interview at Darlene’s offices on the Central Coast, Hope 103.2’s Emma Mullings asked what advice she’d give on how to support a loved one through cancer.
Darlene started by saying that “just being there” is helpful in itself.
“I noticed that [a cancer diagnosis] makes some people feel uncomfortable, and they don’t know what to say,” she said, “so they just pull away completely.”
“There are so many people [in my life] who did that. I just didn’t hear from them at all. But it’s fine. I knew that it wasn’t about me, it was just that they wouldn’t know what to do.”
She has taught her church that just “being present” with your friend or loved one is often all you need to do, to help them in their trial.
“What you bring, when you bring yourself, is presence,” she said. “You bring your presence, and you bring God’s presence, and you don’t have to say a thing.
“Just ‘be’. Come closer than is comfortable, and be OK with it.”
Bring Lightness And Laughter Into The Home
During her two years of medical treatment, which included moments when she thought she would die, the presence of friends was a great encouragement to Darlene.
She was particulary grateful for a friend who visited and prayed for her daily, and helped her family to stay positive.
“One of my best friends Miriam Webster would lay hands on me [in prayer] every single day, and she would make sure that my home was happy,” she said.
“She would have some of the older ladies from the church over, and they would be doing my ironing and playing with my daughter. They’d just be laughing and playing music and writing songs, and they did that for months and months, just to make sure my home was joyful… to help the family stay light.
“It was just so amazing.”
What To Say, What Not To Say
Having recovered from the worst of her illness, Darlene now leads her church in hosting regular breast cancer support days called “Pink Days” on the Central Coast.
At these events she gives advice to women from her community about how to best support their friend through cancer, including tips on “what not to say”.
For example, she says that stories about relatives who suffered from cancer – but didn’t make it – are best left alone.
“Many people have said to me, “Oh, I had an aunty who had [breast cancer]”, and you go, “Oh, how’s she doing”, and they’re like, “Oh no, no she didn’t make it”,” she said.
“I think they start the conversation and then they don’t know what to do.”
Darlene’s advice is to avoid the sad-ending stories, and instead stick to conversation around healing, recovery, and life.
“Just tell us great stories, bring hope,” she said. “And bring it intentionally. Because you’re scrambling for it, when you’re full of fear, and you’re feeling sick, and you look like a skinned rabbit. Just bring hope, bring a meal, fresh food, fresh life, fresh energy. Bring all that to the table.
“Push past all your own fears, and bring who you are. It really matters.”
Pray Positive Prayers That Are Full Of Hope
Being a pastor surrounded by people of faith, Darlene often had friends and strangers offering to pray for her. She was happy to accept, in fact one of her most encouraging moments was when a nurse stopped and prayed for her before she went into surgery.
But for those who do like to pray, Darlene offers the following advice: keep your prayers positive. Mournful prayers that dwell on the possibility of death aren’t encouraging.
“I couldn’t handle it, and I’m still a little bit like this, if people started getting heavy with me,” she said. “People are well-meaning but can say stupid things.
“If they’d be praying, and they’d get heavy and start to cry and pray, “God if it’s your will, just whatever your will is,” I’d say to people, ‘stop’. I would never do that in the past.
“I’d say, ‘Hang on, it’s God’s will that I will live, so can we pray like that please? I know this is an expression of love but can love be pointing me towards hope, and not pulling me down the slippery slide of what-ifs?’
“I had to keep confronting people’s fears, even while they prayed. “
Don’t Cast Judgments On The Person Suffering
Darlene said that she received a lot of negative comments from people, implying that she had cancer because she wasn’t walking in God’s will. But she chose to ignore them.
“I heard all sorts of things about my lack of faith, my moving churches [from Hillsong to the Central Coast], that God was not pleased,” she said.
“I thought, ’God, this is not from you, these sicknesses are not from you’, and I had a real revelation of His love for me.
“I knew that because He loves me, I can trust Him. He did not bring this upon me, but he has allowed it, therefore, I can trust Him because He loves me; I can trust Him with the journey.
“We win either way. “