"Be kind," said Plato "for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." And some of the people who are fighting the hardest battles are doing it on the home front, through carrying the powerful responsibility of caring for another. Who do you know who's in this situation? They might be the parent of a child with special needs. Perhaps they're in a relationship with someone who has suffered a major illness or injury. Or they could be one of the many people whose partner is growing old faster than them, and who is facing a challenging and uncertain future.
Illness and disability is a scary, disorientating and confusing business. It's often hard to know how best to help the people at the heart of the storm. I know this at first hand - a few years ago, my husband Simon suddenly fell into a life-threatening coma, which lasted for five long weeks, followed by an even longer convalescence. It gave me a profound lesson in how none of us can get by without the support of family and friends, especially when we're in crisis. The following five tips are based on my experiences from that time.
1. Stay in touch
Can you find gentle non-invasive ways to reach out and show you care? Phones were off-limits when visiting Simon in the strange half-light of the Intensive Care ward, so it was particularly comforting to find a friendly text waiting for me whenever I stepped outside. My older brother, a man of few words, regularly sent me cards of beautiful landscapes with the simple message 'thinking of you' written inside. These gestures were all the more welcome when I knew they didn't require a response.
2. Offer practical help
What can you do to repay the kindness of a carer? Spending twelve hours each day at the hospital trying everything possible to bring Simon out of his coma - from whispering in his ear to music, massage and aromatherapy - left little time for 'ordinary life.' Some of the things that helped the most were gifts of home-cooked food (finding a casserole on the front step when I got home one night), IT support (the friend who set up a facebook group to share news) and DIY (the handyman who prepared Simon's bedroom for his return from hospital).
3. Be reliable
Are you capable of putting your own needs and emotions to one side? When the most important person in my life was on the edge of dying, and every day brought new unknowns, I desperately needed family and friends to be calm and clear-headed, to show up on time, and to follow through on exactly what we'd agreed. If carers sometimes seem like control freaks, it's because they're living at the very edge of their endurance, and may be counting the seconds until you arrive to share the load.
4. Encourage the carer to take care of themselves
How can any of us be kind to another if we don't know how to be kind to ourselves? The new science of self-compassion demonstrates the importance of treating ourselves with the same kindness that we would offer to a dear friend. Yet for a carer who is 100% focused on the wellbeing of another, this can be the hardest skill to learn. For me, the key to surviving hospital life was to become a lady who lunched. Some friends booked a table at a smart restaurant, while others brought sandwiches to eat together in the gardens. Both were lifesavers. Can you support a carer to take time out for a walk or a rest, share some relaxing music, or find another restorative treat to offer them?
5. Have staying power
Are you willing to be alongside the carer and their family for as long as it takes? In my case, the year after Simon came out of hospital was even harder than the knife-edge of the medical emergency. He not only had to learn how to walk, talk and eat again, but how to get back on the computer, manage a diary, remember his pin number - all the daily tasks of 21st century life. It was a profoundly lonely, anxious and dispiriting time for me, particularly since many of our friends backed off, mistakenly thinking that we now wanted time to ourselves.
"Whenever possible be kind. It is always possible," says The Dalai Lama. When life is at its most unfamiliar, depressing or frightening for your family and friends, please don't back away - it's when they need you most.