What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do – Why I Wrote How Do You Care for a Very Sick Bear? by Vanessa Bayer
There are so many things I learned from being a teenager with leukemia: hospital food is often weirdly unhealthy, daytime TV has a very specific demographic (I admit I still watch General Hospital), medicine is an inexact science. But perhaps most surprising was that people in general, of all ages, donʼt know what to do when a friend or family member falls ill. A common solution is to “let them have their space.” Although that seems to be more for the friend and not the actual person with the disease/illness/loss/fill-in-the-blank.
As someone who has observed this trend, both as a sick person, and a sick personʼs friend, I decided something needed to change, so I wrote my new childrenʼs book, How Do You Care for A Very Sick Bear?
Sure, having a sick friend can be scary, hard, and worrisome, whether youʼre a child or an adult. But remember, your friend is still the same person. The exact same friend that you love. Someone didnʼt swoop in and give your friend a disease and also change out their personality so that they are now a complete stranger who only wants to be sick and alone. They are still your friend who loves to talk and laugh and maybe sometimes cry with you. I know this may seem obvious but I think it doesnʼt hurt do be reminded.
Now that thatʼs out of the way, how do you care for a sick friend? Show up for them. And if theyʼre too tired or run down to spend time with you, let them be the ones who ask to be alone, rather than the other way around.
I also try to teach empathy in How Do You Care for a Very Sick Bear? Weʼre all going through something. Every single one of us. Sure it might not be as visible to the outside world as a child with a bald head and no eyebrows. It might not even be visible at all. It might be that someone is dealing with the loss of a loved one, or a devastating break up. Weʼre all dealing with something and doing the best that we can with the circumstances we are in. So letʼs not just pity people who are sick, letʼs be there for them. Letʼs all be there for each other because weʼre all that weʼve got.
And speaking of being there for each other… I know I just really stood on my soapbox about how friends of people going through something traumatic can be so lousy about being there, but honestly when I was sick, my friends were actually very much there for me. They visited me and we would drink tea while they gave me all of the gossip from school — obviously thereʼs no gossip like ninth grade gossip– or if I was feeling up to it theyʼd take me to a high school football game and help me show off my new long straight hair. (As someone who had always been straightening my naturally curly hair, I have to admit, I LOVED my wig.) They supported me in a way that was so impactful and powerful that they are still some of my closest friends to this day. A quick Google search of “Vanessa best friend Gwen” will prove this– sorry Gwen. In many ways I wrote this book as a tribute to those friends.
You know what else my friends and I would do? We would laugh, a lot. My family, my friends, and I were always making jokes about my cancer journey. I know that illness may not seem super funny, but anyone who has spent significant time in a hospital knows, there is a lot to laugh about. And I think that laughing together kind of put us all at ease and made things seem less hard and even brought us a lot of joy. I think thatʼs why I actually went into comedy, because as cheesy as it seems, in some ways laughter really is the best medicine.
I wrote How Do You Care for A Very Sick Bear? to teach people how to care for a loved one by being there and showing empathy and laughing together, but maybe more importantly, I wrote this book for sick kids like I once was. Because while Iʼve spelled out some of the misconceptions that friends-of-sick-people may have, sick people can have their own misconceptions. I know I had mine, mainly, I remember being scared that no one would want to be my friend because I was sick. I thought it would be hard for them to watch me look different and be weaker and not be able to do all the things we were used to doing. And Iʼm sure those things were hard for them, but they did them anyway, because I was still their friend who they loved to talk and laugh and sometimes cry with. And they were mine.