Life gets real for women over 40. Cancer or other serious health challenges, divorce, late-in-life motherhood, ailing parents, seismic work shocks, parenting crises—there's plenty to knock us back in midlife.
Women need other women to get through this thing called midlife. We want to support a friend through cancer, grief or divorce. Or we may need support.
How do we do it well?
When Dr. Shieva Ghofrany underwent cancer treatment as a patient, she confronted this firsthand. An OB/GYN herself, she knew what to expect at the hospital.
But on the human level, as she puts it, “There is no one, easy, American drive-thru answer,” for what good support for friends in crisis looks like.
We’re afraid to do it wrong. Or even do it.
“Most of us struggle to find the right words, it’s a tough problem to offer support when we don't have the language," Emily McDowell has said. "We need some better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering.”
Her Em & Friends Empathy cards got famous years ago writing cards from a modern POV.
As a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor, she knew it’s equally hard to tell a friend their “Free Boob Job” cancer card hit wrong while you were relying on your kid to help you get to the bathroom.
Crisis Support for a Friend: There’s no one way.
“What you need is very personal. I loved when my friends would come lay next to me and not even talk, just scratch my back and be there,” Dr. Shieva said.
“I feel lucky and blessed but what I didn’t love were all the flowers,” she continued. “I joked that my house looked like a funeral home. It was all the money spent, so much time, and they're all going to die at the same time.”
And while meal trains are popular and often appreciated, her parents lived next door and her husband’s a great cook.
We’re in the asking era of GoFundMe. But generationally, asking can feel awkward. Especially when, as women, we were taught to help and accommodate others. We can fear judgment, hurt feelings, being too forward.
Let midlife be the time to erase all that.
Ask the person or their family or closest caregiver what could help.
Ask for what you need.
Sometimes saying what NOT to do matters as much as what to do. Prefer no drop-ins? No more frozen meals? Say so (or text so).
“Some people love visitors to just hop into their home. I am not that person,” said Dr. Shieva.
Get specific - as helper or helpee.
Practical support for midlife women may go the farthest. Getting the dog groomed or managing an oil change may be better crisis support for women than soup.
“After a friend had surgery, I walked her dogs, someone else weeded, another did lawn mowing,” said Julie Kucinski, Wile co-founder. “She's a divorced mom without family nearby. She’d set up a spreadsheet with specific tasks, days and times. It was brilliant and felt good to be able to help and say a quick hello.”
Do What Comes Naturally
"You don’t have to become superhuman, stepping in to do anything and everything," author and leukemia survivor Suleika Jaouad wrote. "Just do the thing you already love to do." Bakers, bake. Bachelor fans, silently co-binge.
Set up a “How to Help Me” Google doc
Speaking of spreadsheets, writer Anne Helen Peterson shared the “How to Help Me” idea. Family or friend groups shared a document that spells out ways to be cared for and even key contacts. The key: do this now before anyone needs it.
Favorite meals, even recipes & restaurants
Loves (like backrubs, random texts, silently companionable Naked & Afraid marathons)
No thank yous (It could be lasagna, mornings, facetime)
Key providers and contacts: dog groomers, daycare, etc.
Tech (old or new) can help make it easier
Afraid to reach out? Text is less vulnerable than calling. Still nervous? Text when you won’t hypermonitor for a response (early, late, before a meeting).
Just do it.
“The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called “sir” by Starbucks baristas…” McDowell has written. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say.”
Let them know that no response is needed—and be ok with it.
Dr. Shieva reminded us we need to let ego go, and put the person first. Extend grace and center them.
Didn’t hear back? Don’t give up or fear she's mad. Your friend (or you) may be too sick, tired or overwhelmed in the moment to respond. And that's ok.
Add "no need to respond" to a check in. Or establish a "no response needed" emoji like the wave. It feels positive and avoids angst on all sides.
Author Catherine Newman became a hospice worker after tending a lifelong friend through her journey—and wrote an amazing novella about it, We All Want Impossible Things.
Catherine urges people to “Love recklessly.” And that may be the best advice of all.
This article is intended for informational purposes and is not intended to replace a one-on-one medical consultation with a professional. Wile, Inc researches and shares information and advice from our own research and advisors. We encourage every woman to research, ask questions and speak to a trusted health care professional to make her own best decisions.