A CONVERSATION WITH JILL LYNN BUTEYN
Life is busy. We’ve got schedules to keep, people to see, places to go. Who’s got time for anything extra? But when people find themselves in a season of suffering, all that normal stuff ends up on the backburner. When someone’s dealing with illness or a death in the family – or struggling in those early days with a new baby – it’s all about survival.
And what do we do when we hear that someone we know is going through a challenging time? Chances are, we feel a bit guilty and yet relieved that it’s not us. We might make some vague offer of help or perhaps send a card … or maybe continue as we were, without even skipping a beat.
But what should we do – as friends, as neighbours, as acquaintances – when we know that someone in our midst is going through a tough time?
Kara Tippetts was someone who knew how to be there for her friends – and, when she was the one suffering, her friends were there for her. One such friend was Jill Lynn Buteyn. Jill and Kara journeyed together through Kara’s illness with cancer (Kara passed away in 2015) and, in the process, Jill wrote about what friendship looks like in the midst of changing life-seasons, loads of laundry, and sickness.
We recently chatted with Jill about their book, about the gift of silence, the art of receiving, and what it means to just show up.
GRAPEVINE: Your book’s entitled ‘Just Show Up’ – what do you mean by ‘showing up’?
JILL LYNN BUTEYN: Showing up means being there for someone who’s suffering. It could be texting someone to let them know you’re thinking about them or praying for them. It could be dropping off a meal. It might involve a big gesture, like flying across the country – but doesn’t have to be big. How you show up for someone depends upon your relationship with them and the practical question of what you can actually do. I think sometimes people discount the little things, but the little things are important.
GV: Are there any experiences that come to mind where people have been there for you in a time of need?
JILL: Oh, on many occasions! I’ve had people ‘show up’ for me in amazing ways. When I was writing this book with Kara, we had limited time to finish the project because she was so sick. And friends brought dinner for our family. It might sound like a simple thing, but for us it was a big deal – I was so involved in the writing that I wasn’t getting out of my chair to cook. It was hard for me to accept that help, but I had to – after all, I was writing a book about exactly that!
And I really feel that giving and receiving are the building blocks of community.
GV: How so?
JILL: Giving and receiving are what connect us with each other’s lives. Somehow we want to pretend that everything’s perfect. But that’s not the reality. So when you let someone in – when they’re able to give to you and you’re able to receive – that’s a whole other level of friendship. I think we’re missing out on that kind of connection in our culture today. We’re so busy trying to do everything ourselves. But I don’t think that’s how we’re built. We need each other. When you have someone who isn’t willing to receive, the community around them doesn’t grow in the same way.
GV: What is it that holds people back, prevents them from stepping into action and ‘showing up’?
JILL: I think most of us have the desire to do something, but it just feels so confusing and overwhelming that we give up. Because we don’t know what to do, we don’t do anything! However, there are plenty of simple things we could do. We could, for example, drop off a coffee at someone’s front step and text them to let them know it’s there and that we’re thinking of them. Or, if a family with schoolkids is going through a tough time, you could ease their burden by packing an extra lunch for one of their children.
I’d say trust your gut – whatever you’re already thinking about doing is probably what you should be doing!
GV: Those are some great ideas! Do you have any other practical suggestions?
JILL: There are lots of things. For instance, driving kids to and from school, sport, and other activities is a great way to help a family dealing with illness. When a parent or sibling is sick, it’s important for the rest of the family to still participate in normal life as much as possible.
Another thing that can be hugely helpful is having someone take charge of a calendar for meals – that way people aren’t bugging the family themselves about food preferences and that kind of thing. An online meal calendar makes it easy to sign up and know how and where to drop meals off. And one of the great things Kara’s family did was keep a chilly bin on their front step – which made it so much easier and more comfortable for people dropping off meals.
GV: The flipside to all this is, it can often be hard for the receivers. What are some ways we can make things easier for the people we’re trying to help?
JILL: One big thing we can do is to remove expectations about fulfilling our own needs through the interaction or help we’re providing. It’s not easy to be selfless, because we want to see them and enjoy their friendship – but it’s good to know that you’re offering to help without trying to gain anything in return. You have to constantly check your spirit and make sure that you’re giving freely, without any strings attached.
GV: When we don’t know the suffering person or family well, sometimes we feel awkward about offering help. How can we show up for someone without intruding too much into their lives?
JILL: If you don’t know someone well there are still things you can do to help that aren’t as invasive. Things like the meal on the step or, maybe offering to drive their kids to sport … something like that. You’re not necessarily going into their home when you get there.
You want to free them of that expectation, that because you’re at their door they’ve got to entertain you or invite you in. I didn’t know Kara that well when she first got sick – so before I even went to drop off a meal, I decided I’d just be in and out.
Doing laundry’s another way to help – anyone with a family knows how quickly it piles up! People used to help Kara’s family by picking their washing up and taking it back to their own place to wash and dry – they’d just show up and say, “Bring me a dirty basket …” so they weren’t intruding into the family home.
GV: Is there any way we can prepare or have a plan in place before someone needs our help?
JILL: Absolutely! Look, I’m horrible at meals – but when it seems like the best and simplest way to help and show love for someone, I have standard things I pick up at the shop: a main dish and a bagged salad. We put so much
pressure on ourselves to do this perfect homemade meal, but sometimes it’s just having a hot dinner for them to put on the table that matters, not where it comes from! What’s more, when people have food allergies to deal with (as we do in my household), they often appreciate a packaged meal because then all the ingredients are listed.
Often, we assume that a family that’s suffering would be eating a lot of takeaways – because it’s easy. But that might not be true – their budget might not stretch that far, so it can be a fun way to help. You can just say, “I’m a terrible cook, but I’ll send over a pizza. Or I’ll pick up burgers and chips…” And if someone lives further away, a gift card for a meal out is also a great ‘go to’ option.
GV: Okay. So if we know someone who’s going through hardship, what’s the first step in ‘showing up’?
JILL: The first step would be to give them an option – instead of saying How can I help you? try saying, This is what I’m thinking of doing. Would that work for you on this day or that? Give them a couple of options instead of something open-ended. Being specific is so much more helpful. I used to use the old standby phrase – Let me know if you need anything! – but I now realise it’s kind of a useless offer.
GV: A useless offer? Can you elaborate?
JILL: Well, we had a friend whose husband was deployed overseas for months at a time. I’d say to her, Let me know what I can do! After her hubby had returned from his year away, I realised that she’d never really asked me for anything. I looked back on that year and saw that there were specific things I could have offered to do, like driving her kids home from school sometimes. That sort of thing feels small, but when you’re effectively a solo parent it can make a big difference. These days I know better, and I make my offers more specific.
The thing is, we all have a gift. My friend was a photographer and she always did photo sessions for Kara’s family. I wasn’t great at meals, so I usually did other things – but some of our friends were wonderful at cooking, and they’d make homemade soups and all kinds of delicious things.
I think we’re all made to be different. And you can trust that, if the gift you’re thinking of giving or doing comes from you, then it’s probably the right thing to choose – because you’re unique, and so your way of helping will be, too.
GV: What other phrases do you think we should ditch? How about some of the ‘comforting’ things we say, like, God has a plan, or It’ll all work out in the end? Do these platitudes really help the suffering person? And, if not, what do you feel that they might need to hear instead?
JILL: I think we sort of recycle these sentiments we’ve heard because silence makes us uncomfortable – so we want to say something, anything, really! But the truth is, they’re actually hard for a struggling person to hear. Especially when someone’s dying. Having to hear that “things work out for the best” can be challenging – even if they have a faith in God and believe that they’re going to heaven when they die.
Really what someone who’s suffering needs is sympathy, empathy, and understanding. We’re never going to have the perfect thing to say. Suffering is just awkward, and we have to surround each other with grace. Just tell people you love them … tell them you’re there for them … tell them that you’re sorry they’re going through this. Somehow we think that’s not enough, but it really is.
And just telling someone that you’re thinking about them and praying for them is a gift, too. It’s bigger than we think.
The same goes for silence. Let’s not forget that silence is a gift, too. I think our need to fill the silence comes from us wanting to fix things. Suffering is hard – it’s hard to endure and it’s hard to be around, and we want to make it better. But we can’t. We really cannot fix suffering. We can try to bring comfort in small ways, but truly you just have to sit with your friend or loved one in the midst of what they’re going through.
And, when we feel upset or overwhelmed, it helps to remember this phrase: ‘comfort in … dump out.’ It’s something we read about that really resonated with us.
GV: ‘Comfort in … dump out’? Tell us more?
JILL: It’s called the ‘Ring Theory’, developed by clinical psychologist and cancer survivor Susan Silk. We first read about it in a great article in the LA Times: ‘How Not to Say the Wrong Thing’. It’s basically a guideline for handling a situation in which someone in your life is suffering. The illustration is a number of small concentric circles – like a target – and the person suffering is at the centre (the bullseye). In the ring around them is their immediate family; in the next ring out would be the rest of the family; the next ring out would be friends; and so forth.
The idea is that your responsibility is to avoid overburdening the people in the centre and closer to the centre than you. You don’t offload your concerns to them or tell them how hard this person’s suffering is for you – instead, you offer them your support and comfort. And you look to those in the outer rings to offer the same to you.
That’s the beautiful thing about community – you have this ripple effect where you’re being there for someone and then other people, in turn, are being there for you.
GV: How important is it for those who are helping someone to acknowledge the reality of their diagnosis?
JILL: When someone’s suffering, a lot of the people around them fall away. They just can’t handle not knowing what to say or do, so they leave. Years ago, I knew someone who was dying and I hadn’t managed to get up the courage to talk to them about it – I just felt tongue-tied. So, when Kara was first diagnosed, even though at that point it wasn’t a terminal diagnosis, I knew the awkwardness of not knowing what to say.
We were new friends, and there was this moment in which I could have so easily just turned in the other direction – but I didn’t want to make that mistake again. So, I made a decision to go towards Kara – even without knowing exactly what that would look like. If I saw her across the room, I wasn’t going to look away because she was sick. I was going to go right up to her, and maybe say the wrong thing, but I was going to be a part of her life. And that’s where I started – by just not turning the other way.
So my advice is: choose to be the one who doesn’t turn away. You can say to someone, “I want to be here for you, but I have no idea what I’m doing, so will you help me?” A hug speaks volumes, too. What matters is that you’re showing that you love someone and taking away their sense of isolation.
GV: When we’re the one going through a difficult time, how can we encourage others to walk alongside us? And how can we ease the way when things feel awkward?
JILL: That’s a great question! I think if you can be open with the people around you, who want to show love to you, it’s so helpful. You know that desire in your own heart, when you want to help someone – we’ve all felt it! And so, as the person suffering you have to remember what that feels like. They want to help … they want to do something for you. If you can say, “I’m really struggling with how messy my house is. I never would’ve wanted to ask someone for help with this, but if you were able to come for 30 minutes and tidy up a bit, I’d be so grateful …”
It’s so hard to ask for that help. But sometimes you do have to be willing to accept things and let people in that way. There were times that we cleaned Kara’s house, and I know that was hard for her, but she became really good at accepting help. She had to – her physical strength had been stripped away.
At times, it’s so much easier to be the one giving than the one receiving.
GV: Sometimes we want to help by offering cures or medical breakthroughs. But what do you think – can that be more harmful than helpful?
JILL: Kara and Jason (her husband) were inundated with ‘helpful’ ideas and advice, and I could see how that affected them. I wanted to offer some natural health solutions I’d heard about, but from watching them I realised it wasn’t just one person (me) offering advice – they were getting ideas from everyone. Can you imagine what that feels like? You’re fighting in the best way you know how – you’ve made tricky decisions where there really doesn’t seem to be just one easy option, but you believe you’ve chosen what’s best for you – and then all of a sudden 10 people are there saying, What about this? What about that? Have you tried this other thing? It’s just overwhelming.
I came to the point where I had to let go of my desire to offer suggestions, because I could see that Kara had made a choice and, as a friend, I had to honour that. Otherwise you kind of drive yourself crazy. There’s always a ‘what if’ – but if the person suffering isn’t interested in trying something, then you have to let it go. If there’s something you feel you absolutely have to share, my advice is to just give them the information and walk away – don’t badger them or question them or even follow up about it. You have to be willing to just lay it at their feet. Because even if it is literally a case of ‘life and death’, it’s THAT person’s life, and THAT person’s death – it’s not for you to push your ideas or make decisions for them.
GV: How can you engage with the person who’s suffering when they’re not up to ‘normal’ life?
JILL: People who are suffering still want to be included. They mightn’t be able to accept an invitation, but they’d still like to receive one. And if you can accommodate them in some way so that they can be a part of things, that’s even better.
In terms of normal life, you can invite someone along for a ride when you’re going shopping. Or, if they’re bedridden, you can offer to sit and keep them company while their family goes out somewhere, watch a movie together, or whatever. It can be a huge relief for a family, if their loved one’s confined to bed, if you can give them the freedom to get out into the world – because if the suffering person needs round-the-clock care then that draws their loved ones very much into the suffering, too.
You could just say, “I’ve got a book I need to read – shall I come and sit and read next to so-and-so while you go out and run some errands or take a walk?”
GV: How do you ‘show up’ for yourself – when you’re the one suffering?
JILL: By accepting people into your life and letting them see the hard and the messy places. And maybe not necessarily just in your house, but also in your soul and your spirit – the ways that you struggle. Let them in. Kara learned quickly to accept help, but she was also great at loving us back. She was so good about asking what was going on in our lives – she really still knew us.
She showed up for herself, too, in keeping friendships going – she was always very aware of her friends and the people around her. So even when things were becoming very Kara-focused, she continued to look outside herself and her own needs.
Kara was also very good about setting boundaries. If there was family time going on, she’d let us know – and we were all very respectful of her wishes to keep some space for them to just be home without intrusion, to be as normal as possible.
GV: As the one helping, is it ever okay to set boundaries or say ‘no’ to a request?
JILL: Healthy boundaries are essential. It’s really the same as it is in the other areas of our lives – we have to find balance. If we say ‘yes’ to everything then we end up being no help because we burn out. So, when helping someone, figure out what you’re capable of and what’s too much, and stick within those boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with that – we have to let go of the guilt that we feel when we say no.
When people do something out of guilt, you can tell – and nobody wants that. The heart does matter. If you’re doing what you can, that’s a good thing, and that’s enough.