I feel like I'm already mourning my friend. I also feel like it’s so selfish of her to retreat in this way, as if a friendship only goes one way. I'm hurt that she doesn't have space for me, or seem concerned about my life, which has had a major event in these past months. I’m also sad that she isn’t really “living” while she still can. Mostly, I really miss her, but I don’t even know how I would react if she reached out tomorrow. I’m trying to figure out how to process this in the meantime.
Thanks for any thoughts and advice.
I’m so sorry that your dear friend is seriously ill. She must be swirling in a whole slew of emotions right now—fear, anger, sadness, helplessness, hope, and despair. And though you’re not in her position, you’re probably feeling a very similar set of emotions, just from a different angle.
When two people are experiencing a lot of the same feelings, and with great intensity, their relationship can get complicated. But if you can separate your feelings from hers and deepen your appreciation of her experience, you might be able to view the situation with greater understanding, and that, in turn, may help to quell your anger and ease some of your suffering.
First, it’s common for people with late-stage cancer to withdraw from the world in ways big and small. Each person is different, but in general, the sicker people get, the more they close in on themselves. Hospice workers educate family and friends about this phenomenon so that a person’s loved ones don’t take this behavior personally. Disconnecting from the people and things one enjoys can be a natural part of the dying process. And just as you’re already grieving the loss of your friend, she’s grieving for herself, too.
I don’t know what her grief looks like (grief is so personal), but I can share with you what cancer patients have told me about their reasons for taking a step back from friendships during this time.
The most frequent explanation I hear is that the way the friend is trying to help isn’t very helpful. Everyone reacts differently to a cancer diagnosis, and there’s no right or wrong way to handle the news, but often a person’s friends have strong opinions about what their sick friend should be doing. Well-meaning advice on treatment options, self-care, mind-set, support groups, and what to eat can feel overwhelming and intrusive. Many people want to do their own research and consult their own doctors, and make their own decisions accordingly. They don’t want to be told that they aren’t doing “enough” (for instance, if they’re choosing an Eastern medicine approach over a Western medicine approach, or if they’ve chosen to cease treatment altogether despite the possibility of prolonging life); or, alternatively, that they’re doing too much (continuing a treatment with little chance of success) or need to “relax more.” (As one patient said to me, “My life is on the line and I’m supposed to relax more?”)