Friends Say (and Do) the Darndest Things
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By Hester Hill Schnipper

Friends Say (and Do) the Darndest Things

You need your friends more than ever, but some of them just aren't up to the job

By Hester Hill Schnipper


When someone you love has cancer, you have an even greater than usual need for your friends. You rely on their help with the jobs related to caring: transportation, meal preparation, errands and bills. But even more, you need them to be the same friends they have always been—to keep you company, listen to your worries and make you laugh.

It is often a shock when you discover that some of your so-called friends just can’t do it.

If, at the start of a cancer journey, you were to list the people you expect to depend upon, and those you imagine won’t call, you are sure to be surprised. There will be some who will come forward and support you in ways unimaginable at the beginning. But there will be others who will disappoint, hurt and even desert you.

These lapses in friendship seem to fall into several categories: failure of empathy, disappointing actions, stupid remarks, and, worst of all, abandonment. Cancer patients themselves experience these reactions from friends, but their diagnosis generally motivates more people to try to be supportive. Caring for someone with cancer has less “zing” than a diagnosis itself, so the caregiver’s pool of involved friends may be smaller. It may shrink further still if you feel inhibited about sharing your personal troubles at work or school, and are only relying on friends from other parts of your life.

Friends most often disappoint by their apparent lack of understanding or empathy. If you are depressed or worried, they may minimize those feelings, choose not to listen, or even change the subject of a conversation. An exhausted wife told me that a friend had lectured her for “being so negative” and then talked about her frustrations with a lemon of a new car. Another problem—friends’ bad decisions—may be inconvenient or just plain irritating. Take, for example, the old friend who, unannounced and uninvited, arrives for a week’s visit “to cheer you up.”

Stupid and thoughtless remarks abound, too. It can be helpful to have a few prepared rejoinders so you are not stunned into silence, thinking only later of what you wish you had said. You can respond to almost anything with: “Why would you say that to me?” or “I can’t believe you said that.” Either retort may result in an apology and, at least, will give you a voice. One husband told me that he maintains a list of stupid remarks. That way, when someone says something appalling, he can think: “That is a great one for the list.” These moments of thought and direction enable him, usually, to respond less angrily.

The hardest to accept are the friends who vanish. These elusive souls may be your neighbors, work colleagues or even lifetime confidants. You may have heard from them at the beginning, and then encountered a long silence. Without making excuses for them, it is safe to say that their disappearances are related to their own fears or personal experiences with cancer, illness or death. You may choose to speak with or write to them about your feelings of loss and disappointment. Alternately, you may decide these friendships have permanently lost their value.

You may be saddened to find that you’ve become distant from people you counted as good friends before your cancer experience. But keep in mind that there will be positive changes, too. It is certain that other relationships will have grown through these hard times, and that you will find yourself blessed by the recognition of how many real friends you do have.