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3 Ways to Show Up for a Friend Who Just Had Surgery

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I am currently recovering from my 13th surgery. I’m in pain. Exhausted. Uncomfortable. But I’m one of the lucky ones – I have a support network that is deep and wide and varied and completely owning it when it comes to showing up for me when I need it the most. Unfortunately, they’ve had a lot of practice.

One of the questions I often get asked as a cowgirl who is not-so-new to the recovery rodeo is, “What can I do/give to someone who just had surgery? What would actually be helpful?” So let me first start by saying, you’re already doing great. You’re thinking about that person. You’re not pretending you “know” everything they’re going through. You have a leg up, trust me. So here are my top three ways to best show up for a recovering friend, co-worker, neighbor or family member. They’re not all inclusive, and every person and procedure is different, but my hope is that they’ll lead you down the well-intentioned path of thoughtfulness and you can detour as you see fit. A very “choose your own act of kindness,” if you will.

1. Send Snail Mail

Getting actual mail is one of life’s simplest pleasures, right? Whether it’s a postcard, a small gift or a magazine. When you’re recovering from surgery, there are minimal high points in a day. Personally, I look forward to my morning cup of coffee (dark or light roast today?), choosing what I’ll binge-watch based on my mood and pain level (dramedy? biopic?) and shuffling through the day’s mail (bill. bill. letter!).

So, what should you send? What should you say? My advice for gifts is always to give something that recognizes the place the patient is in, which likely means they’re in bed or on the couch, and not leaving their home much except for post-op appointments. I love getting a new type of tea, a subscription to a new magazine or an easy-on-the-eyes puzzle. But better yet, I love letters. “Get Well Soon” cards always shine, but so do funny postcards or novel-like life updates on college-ruled paper. Snail mail has become an archaic art form, which makes it that much more appreciated by the sick recipient.

2. Check In Often (and mark your calendars!)

Unless you’ve been through a medical triathlon yourself, it’s hard to imagine what a surgical recovery is like – a lot depends on the type and severity of the procedure, as well as the individual’s medical history. For some people, it really unfolds that standard “take it easy for a few weeks” and then you’re back to traversing farmer’s markets and frequenting the gym. For others, like myself, recovery is like a game of Battleship. One day, you’re firing shots and sinking your opponent, and the next, you’re the helpless opponent gasping for air beneath the water’s surface. Point being, I still feel like hell three weeks after the surgery, just in a different way than I did two days post-op.

Oftentimes, people are incredibly timely with wishing you luck the night before/the morning of your surgery. And they shine in the couple of days following. But what about a week after? Two weeks after? A month after? The best advice I can give you is to keep showing up as the days go on. Mark your calendar so you don’t forget! While your world is turning, the person who is recovering has a world that may have stopped mid-axis. And friends who check in after all the dust settles are the ones they’ll remember most fondly on their worst of days.

3. Arrange for Food Before Surgery

Most of my surgeries tend to occur in the head/ear region. For days and weeks following, I find it hard to open my jaw to its full capacity – so you can imagine what a B-rated horror film chewing can be. My most favorite thing to eat post-op? Smooth soup. Smoothies. Sorbet. Anything that requires minimal movement of my jaw. So, one of my favorite things my support network does is line up food delivery/grocery shopping beforehand for me – when I’m lucid and can make clear-headed decisions.

Even though the thought is there when you ask a friend, “What can I bring you today?” – it is so much better to say, “I’m coming back on Monday, just like we talked about last week, with fruit and pancakes! All you have to do is warm them up.” Never feel like you have to read someone’s mind (and to all of you patients out there: don’t make them, either!). Ask them what they want! Surgery can screw up your palette for a while, so odd meals can hit the spot.

So from one post-op couch potato to the rest, I thank you. You clicked on this article, which must mean you care about someone in your life who is about to go through something scary. And that, my friend, is a very thoughtful step in the right direction. You can’t really mess it up from here.

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Originally published: January 23, 2018
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