The “Elephant Sisterhood” – and The Importance of Asking for Help

Trish Harper

“Well, it looks like I have a touch of the breast cancer.”

These words fell from my friend’s mouth with a thud after she learned the news of some long-awaited medical tests. Although her smile disguised shock and sadness, all of our eyes were moist with tears.

Her devastating diagnosis took place just a few weeks before the strange new respiratory illness now known as COVID-19 was beginning to show up, not yet grown into the threatening worldwide pandemic we are now living through.

There are many things I admire about this particular friend: her generous compassion, how she is always thinking of others, and the way she can lift up anyone who is feeling down. There is also her quirky, self-deprecating humour that was soon to be an essential asset through the many indignities of living alongside cancer. And of course, the ever-present twinkle in her eyes which belies the steely tenacity and courage she had to summon over several months of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.

She also did something I will never forget, and something for which I am truly grateful for.

She asked for help.

She told us she needed us. And so we began our journey of (mutual) support.

She wisely gathered a group of eight friends, like an elephant sisterhood, designed to protect each other through the trials and tribulations of life. She was inspired by how female elephants form a circle of protection around new mothers in the herd and establish strong social bonds. They communicate with each other to face natural threats and keep each other safe.

All too often it becomes easy to buy into the myth that we should be able to take care of ourselves at all times.

Have you been so fortunate to have an “elephant sisterhood” through this often lonely, sometimes confusing and frightening time of the pandemic?

Here are a few tips if you haven’t taken a leap to ask for the help and support you need, and the surprising benefits of being on the “giving” end:

Give yourself permission to be vulnerable.

Too many of us still equate being vulnerable with being weak, despite Brené Brown’s best efforts to help us understand the benefits of vulnerability when she said, “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

Unfortunately, there is still some self-stigma around asking for help, which leads to a feeling of internal shame and stops us from admitting that we could use some assistance. I’m so glad my friend was able to fight past these societal messages and be honest about the arduous journey ahead, which of course became more difficult as the pandemic unfolded.

Remember that we all need help sometimes.

We are, by nature, social creatures and have succeeded largely by being interdependent. This has certainly been highlighted by the pandemic, as we have become increasingly aware that we rely on each other for our well-being. All too often it becomes easy to buy into the myth that we should be able to take care of ourselves at all times.

One of the most valuable aspects of our circle of support has been the accessibility of a kind word when one of us is down, or simply sharing experiences like the tribulations of raising teenagers and then helping them cope with all of the changes in their lives over this past year. Each of us have been on the giving and receiving end of encouragement, and it has made a big difference in keeping our spirits up.

Extend your circle by reaching out.

Sometimes part of the problem is that we have people in our lives that aren’t as reliable or are simply dealing with many stressors themselves and don’t have the capacity to respond. If this sounds like your inner circle, think about reaching out to neighbours, members of a faith community you are a part of, or people you volunteer with. Often people are more than happy to help out once they know someone is in need, even if they are not a close friend.

Although all of the women in our “elephant sisterhood” are part of my social circle, only a few were close friends prior to our gathering as a group.

Remind yourself that you will return the favour.

We all know the phrase, “It is better to give than to receive,” but I have come to believe that both are vitally important because reciprocity is naturally present in our circle. Although my friend started this group by asking us for our support, all of us firmly believe that she knew she was also gifting us by being more present in our lives. And by creating a circle of support that has been mutually beneficial, she has continued to hold on to her identity as a strong, beautiful woman who is a friend, a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter, a coworker, and now, a cancer survivor.

Sometimes I wonder what my experience of the pandemic would have been had I not been a part of this wonderful group of women. I have a feeling that my perception of myself as a strong, independent woman may have impeded my ability to have the courage that my friend did to ask for support when she needed it. How many of you out there have tried to “tough it out” through the pandemic? I hope this story is a reminder of how important asking for help is – In fact, you might even say it’s an essential life skill.


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Author: Trish Harper (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute.Trish is the co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights: Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. The book is available on our website.
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