Stepping Up For Neighbors

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Not everyone with cancer has built-in support. Perhaps the individual has no family, or an event in the past may have caused the family to become estranged. Some people are just loners by nature and have happily kept to themselves through the years. Others are isolated because of mental illness. And some people have burned every bridge that once brought them connection.

In today’s column, I’d like to recognize a small group of people who step up to support a neighbor, a community member, or an acquaintance who would otherwise go through cancer alone.

This support takes many forms. Sometimes it’s driving the person to treatment, bringing over a bowl of soup, or helping sort through the stack of bills on the kitchen table. Often, the most important role is to listen as the person comes to grips with having a life-threatening illness.

But I have also seen this support evolve such that the neighbor is the one who helps the patient navigate their final months of life. The neighbor becomes the de facto family – making sure that the patient is loved and that their wishes are carried out. I’ve even seen neighbors arrange funerals and scatter the individual’s ashes afterward.

I don’t think we have a word for all of this, but I wish we did. “Saintly” doesn’t really work because not all of these caregivers are, well, saintly. More often, they’re just normal folk who go to work, drink beer on the weekend, and try to do what’s right.

They don’t consciously decide to help their neighbor through their final days – it just happens. I suspect they sometimes think, “I really don’t want to do this.”

But they do.

I often wonder how and why people are able to help their neighbors in this way. It’s certainly not done for the recognition or for money. I do believe that most people want to find meaning in life. Helping someone through illness and death – especially someone you have no obligation to help – has to be one of life’s most meaningful experiences.

And, as we get older and wiser, many realize that helping a neighbor is how we best save the world.

By the very nature of what they do, these good neighbors are the last ones to leave the funeral home. There’s no one left behind to thank them.

If one of you is reading this column, know that I thank you. And know that your community is a better place because of you.


From the Ithaca Journal, September 8, 2012

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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