The Power of a Support System and 5 Key Lessons Learned Through Difficult Times



The Power of a Support System and 5 Key Lessons Learned Through Difficult Times


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


~  Maya Angelou


 As is true for a lot of people, I have gone through many tough times. The one thing I know I can always count on is my support system. The unconditional love that comes with this support helped me get through the darkest hour.  The hour-long talks with my sister at 10:00 pm in front of a gas station were priceless. One night, we sat in front of the gas station in the car for so long just venting, laughing, talking, and laughing some more, and before long, we realized we witnessed a robbery. At home, Felicity laughs at me when she comes over and sees me simply sitting in my car…alone, enjoying the solitude. I’m sure many parents can relate to this!


The ice cream run with a friend, dinners my friends and colleagues brought when I didn’t have time to feed my growing kids, prayer cloths and prayers and supportive text messages were all present. The day I resigned from my twenty-one-year career, I received hundreds of emails that day and more in the ensuing days, weeks and months with positive thoughts and offers of help. Aunt Tandy (whom I was named after) and Uncle Riley visited a few times between December 2009-June 2010 and this helped me remember I had others I could rely on. They provided comfort, love, and support when I needed it.


During one of my dad’s hospital stays in October/November 2010, Stacey and her husband, Anthony, without me asking, came to the hospital to pray with and for my dad. They gave him a prayer cloth and visited with him for a while. This gesture really touched my heart and it certainly made an impact with my dad. My dad is not the church or praying type and I will tell you he held on tight to his cloth. Even when he forgot they visited, he held the cloth and would say, “Some of your friends from work gave this to me. They were very nice people.” Another friend and colleague, Anna, helped me by sharing her experience of traumatic brain injury with a loved one and gave me several tips I incorporated into our lives. It helped talking to someone who had been there and I felt comforted knowing I wasn’t alone.


My dad had the opportunity to work and see police officers, pilots, and others as they dabbled with or trained in flight simulators. One police officer in particular came to our house to visit my dad and visited several times thereafter, even bringing him a Christmas gift. Coincidently, the benefits person I worked with at my dad’s employer, Laura, was truly amazing with and for us. We knew each other through a fraternal youth organization growing up. Little did I know she would be the person I worked with to help me navigate the often confusing medical leave, extended leave, and benefits. Laura worked tirelessly and proactively to take care of things for my parents, keeping a watchful eye for anything I needed to do or be aware of—sometimes even when she was on vacation. My dad’s manager, Jim, sent cards from their department, gave me a heads up as we neared paperwork filing deadlines, and called periodically to check on my dad.  A waitress, Sandy, who works at Macayo’s Mexican Restaurant in Casa Grande, delivered a huge, delicious, and filling platter full of food. It was such a sweet gesture and we appreciated her thoughtfulness and the time it took to her to bring this to us. This foot hit the spot.


 Connecting…truly connecting with others is critical for our growth and support. While there is no substitute for personal face-to-face connections with people, Facebook has grown to be a positive tool for me. Through all the family ups and downs, I found Facebook to be a huge time saver as I posted family updates. One message—everyone sees it and knows I’m posting updates about my parents and waa laa. Of course, when things were grim and we thought we would lose my dad, I reached out and called close family members personally. The rest of our extended family got messages via Facebook. I so appreciated getting to know my extended family more through these trials and tribulations. The ‘thinking of you,’ ‘praying for you all,’ ‘hang in there,’ and related messages helped immensely. This support has meant the world to us. We have a strong yearning now to learn more about our family history as a result of these meaningful connections and their support.  Felicity and Amanda have since dug out our various family genealogy research and work on to fill in the blanks.


Our extended family has annual reunions and typically rotates the location between east and west coasts. The reunions are always on the same weekend as the statewide convention for the youth organization I referenced earlier. Consequently, we didn’t attend family reunions. As result of my parents’ declining health, the family made the unprecedented decision to change the reunion dates AND came to Arizona in the middle of July. All of this so we could participate. This meant so much to us all.


 Some people we meet in life touch our hearts and lives so profoundly; we become soul sisters. Such as the case with my dear friend, Tanna. She always helped me put any situation in perspective and always looked out for my best interest, both personally and professionally. She knew just the right thing to say in the right moments. She gave me cards when I needed them most, she visited my family, and helped me see the forrest from the trees when it was difficult for me to see myself at times. She left me uplifting voice messages, took me to the movies, and brought me Jamba Juice when I couldn’t eat solid foods after surgeries. We laughed and cried together. I have learned so much from her and her friendship made these tough times easier. One day, Tanna picked me up on a particularly difficult day from the nursing facility my mom was in at the time and took me across town, in rush hour, to a healing garden, chapel, and labyrinth. This really helped me that day more than she will ever know. I certainly wouldn’t have handled my own healing as well as I did without her love, support, and encouragement. True trust and friendship is believing in and knowing someone so well that they know your weaknesses and love you anyway. This is Tanna.



When I was diagnosed with cancer for a first and second time, one of my previous bosses, John, who had left the organization we worked for to serve as CEO for another company, called me. John told me he had heard about my cancer surgery and wanted me to know he and his family were praying for me.



 My long time boss and mentor, Nina, also kept in touch before and after I left the organization we worked for. I learned so much from her over the years about leadership, strategic thinking, innovation, graciousness, navigating political waters, being a change agent, and countless other things. She sent flowers and called several times to check on me and see how everyone was doing. Her encouragement kept me feeling positive about things.  We went to lunch periodically (not enough!) to catch up and discuss all things positive. We worked together for about two (2) decades. I felt so fortunate to have such a strong example of leadership with such a strong woman.


My dogs provided unconditional love and support during this time as did my cat, Emma. When I was particularly sad or feeling less than 100 percent, Emma would curl up on my bed next to my head and start purring loudly. I found this so healing and comforting. She stayed that way all night at times. My dogs, Roxy and Colonel, always knew when I was sad or when any of us in the house needed them. One day, after a particularly hard day at work, I plopped on the recliner and started crying. Roxy jumped on my lap and started licking my tears away. This gesture made me cry more because I was so thankful for her! Roxy would provide immense support for my dad and saved both my parents’ lives on more than one occasion. I truly believe she came into our lives a year before all of this happened to help us through these hard times. Had I known how amazing dogs were for us humans, I would have had dogs decades ago. I can tell you this—I will always have at least one dog around me the rest of my life.


Several of Felicity’s friends were absolutely amazing support for our family. They were so good for Felicity and added humor to her life. On several occasions, these amazing friends, Amanda and Mary, brought food to our house, enough for several days, and played games with my sister, watched movies, and were simply there. The laughter and positive energy was a great pick me up for our house at the time. They reached out to my sister, Felicity, and me on multiple occasions, offering support, prayers, and counsel.


During Felicity’s darkest hour, I reached out to Amanda and Mary for help. They rose to the occasion, reached out to Felicity, and they were there when she needed them most. Being able to reach out to them and ask for their support was probably the only way Felicity would have had the support she needed from friends as she feared they would judge her. Quite the opposite occurred. They listened with an open heart and supported her. Addiction is emotional, not logical. While sometimes tough love is needed, having understanding, supportive, and nonjudgmental people around us, can be just as, if not, more powerful. Families at Felicity’s preschool offered support and understanding. They understood when she needed to leave work for family matters. The owner even paid for Felicity’s doctors’ appointments so she could get better. Her class full of little ones also understood and I think they provided her refuge.




“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing…not healing, not curing…that is a friend who cares.


~ Henri Nouwen



As quickly as things seemed to become somewhat manageable, the perform storm happened! One evening, my daughter, Sarah, was going in as the presiding officer for Job’s Daughters. This ceremony is like planning a mini wedding. It’s a huge deal. Our Job’s Daughter involvement goes back several generations. Amanda and Sarah planned this ceremony and Sarah’s entire term of office activities, fundraisers, and charity alone, when typically, it is a family affair for us. I really struggled inside, like a tug of war, balancing all areas in my life. Like a juggler with eight balls in the air, I felt like they all could fall to the ground at any moment. I was fragile and the balls in the air felt like glass and everything could come crumbling down around me. Every step I took felt like sharp glass.




Here I was a single mom to kids and pets, daughter caregiver extraordinaire, cancer survivor, and was knee-deep in this fraternal youth organization as an elected advisor. I felt so guilty that I couldn’t fulfill my obligations with or for just about anyone, except my parents. I felt like such a terrible mom for not being there for Sarah at this pivotal point in her life. Amanda had been there and done it many times over and just picked it up and made it happen. Once again, I felt immense gratitude and unconditional love for and from Amanda and Sarah. Sarah understood why I simply couldn’t help her then, but she didn’t have to like it! This ceremony and term of office was years in the making with much preparation months’ prior. A few times when the girls were discussing the upcoming events, I started crying because I felt a deep ache in my heart for not being present when she needed my support and guidance. No amount of reassurance from them took the ache away. All I did at that point was pray my parents’ health condition remained stable through this.




At this stage, my mom was back home recovering from a hospital stay and my dad was in his third stint at a rehabilitation center and had been there thirty-six hours when I got a call. There is a saying that you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. This definitely describes how I felt. On a beautiful Friday morning, as I loaded our car with boxes of things for Sarah’s big evening, my dad’s rehabilitation center called. His blood sugar was under forty. He was nonresponsive. His blood pressure was virtually nonexistent. My dad had gone into respitory arrest and was intubated with a machine breathing for him. He was in the ambulance en route to the hospital. The rehabilitation center told me it didn’t look good and the hospital needed me there immediately.



Seriously, I thought. Really! Now of all days! Wow. I always felt that God didn’t give us more than we could handle and I was now wavering with this philosophy…at least for a few moments. I rushed inside, told my mom what was happening, and she set the land speed record for getting ready. It’s important to note that my mom’s idea of ‘rushing to get ready’ was a minimum of thirty minutes. I told her I needed to get to the hospital NOW and said as soon as I put my bra on (It was morning and I hadn’t taken a shower yet!), we are leaving. She was in her wheelchair ready with her oxygen and purse in hand by the front door when I came out of my room.  At the hospital, doctors said the only thing they could do is help my dad be comfortable. He wasn’t responding to sugar IV’s to raise his blood sugar or other medical interventions. It seemed everything they did to help one thing negatively impacted another part of his body. His organs were shutting down. Hours went by and his stats continued declining. Still unable to breathe on his own, doctors advised us to call any other family to come see him and nurses gave us hospice information. I called Aunt Tandy and Uncle Riley and told them of the situation. 


I was now faced with the decision of staying with my parents at the hospital or leaving and supporting Sarah that evening. I knew that if my dad died while I was gone, he would have wanted me to be with Sarah. Felicity quickly relieved me, spent time with our dad, and took care of my mom while I drove to get from one end of town to the other during rush hour. Oh, what fun! I still don’t remember how I got there. A few miles away from the ceremony location, a fellow adult advisor, Matt, called my cell phone and whispered, “Tandy, your daughter is being caped and crowned.” He held the phone up so I could hear what was going on. I started crying, cursing and couldn’t believe after all of this, I would miss this special, once in a lifetime moment. I arrived literally just in time to see my beautiful daughter being crowned. I breathed a sigh of relief and gave thanks that everyone helped ensure I made it to see this blessed event. I later learned that everyone tried delaying the ceremony as long as possible until I got there. They started late and they spoke very, very slowly through the evening until I got there.


If only my support system could turn my dad’s deteriorating health around. Shortly after the ceremony, I returned to Barrow’s. Felicity and I rotated being with our dad. This was it—the end. So many emotions were swirling around in my body. I felt dizzy. I was thankful we were there for each other and shuttered at what would happen next.


After my parent’s respective deaths, my incredible friends once again rose to the occasion and helped with so many things. One of my dearest friends, Mark, was there for me in a moments notice. He presided over both memorial services and provided immense strength for me and our entire family. This is just a very small snippet of our friendship. Needless to say, I know we will always be there for each other no matter what. 

Our very dear family friends Rose and Brian also provided immense support during this time. Rose brought countless dinners to our home, had family pictures blown up on poster boards for the memorial services and would always call to check up on us. During another difficult time prior to my parents’ deaths, Rose invited me for a weekend up north to help alleviate stress and just get away. THAT was a much needed time away with great friends, good wine, food and fun. Another one of my close friends, Linda and John, brought dinner for us and were there for us. Our friends Brandon and Andi brought over dinner and then a wonderful basket of fruit with a card signed by their entire family another day. Our US Airways family provided dinner when family was in town and cooking dinner really wasn’t high on my priority list. There were many people from my University of Phoenix days at one or both funerals. I was so honored they came to support us.

Here are key lessons I learned about support systems:


1.  We all need a support system. Whether it’s family, friends, volunteer organizations, church, colleagues, mentors, sororities, fraternities, support groups related to what you and/or family are going through…. Whatever it is, reach out, embrace, and accept your support system. Initially, we didn’t want to burden others. Sometimes, we think others won’t want to really help or you just want to shut out the world, but true friends want to help. Friends wanting to bring dinner for the family. Bring it. Family offering to come and help clear out homes and storage units. Please do. Family and friends offering to take my kids places, yes…. Families offering to take care of my parents for a few hours while I rest, go see a movie, or whatever I needed to do at the time. Thank you. Friends visiting to offer prayer and comfort. You betcha. These are powerful ways our support system rose to the occasion.


2.       ASK for help! Ask and you shall receive.


3.       People who say to let them know if there is anything they can do for you aren’t always there when you do ask. I learned who my real friends were.


4.       When we reject offers of help, we are rejecting a part of ourselves. We also take away from the gifts others want to give us.


5.       Accepting and asking for help isn’t about being weak, it actually demonstrates our strength.


Remember, “No matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.”—Maya Angelou

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Tandy Elisala

Family Caregiver Coach, Cancer Empowerment Advocate and Chief Inspiration Officer at Center for Inspiring Greatness | Empowered Family Caregiver
Tandy Elisala is passionate about helping family caregivers go from being overwhelmed and stressed to empowered and calm. Tandy went through cancer four times and learned how to heal using conventional, complementary, and alternative therapy. Tandy left her corporate career to take care of both parents simultaneously while raising three kids as a single mom. She took care of both parents for 2 1/2 years until their respective deaths. Tandy now teaches what she learned on her journey. Tandy is a family caregiver coach, a multiple best-selling author, inspirational speaker and mom to three adult kids, one angel dog and one diva cat.

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