Dear Dr. Hurd,
Why do people sometimes back away from friends who are very sick or who are mourning the death of a loved one? Last year, my husband got a terminal illness and passed away suddenly. During his illness, some of his friends who used to call regularly just sort of ‘ disappeared. When I asked them at the funeral why they didn’t call more often during his time of need, I got stammering answers from, ‘I didn’t want to bother you during this terrible time’ to ‘Well, I just didn’t know what to say.’ I have to admit that I’ve felt uncomfortable about calling somebody who is dying, or even his or her wife or husband, so I kind of understand. Why does this happen?
Nobody feels comfortable thinking about death and dying. But this discomfort is normal. The problem begins when friends or family won’t admit this honest emotion to themselves. They repress or ignore it, because they’re ashamed that they have it, yet they end up acting on it anyway by procrastinating, denying and making excuses.
My advice is that they simply face the stark reality that death is awful. By acknowledging the discomfort, they can move ahead and confront the situation.
When dealing with the terminal illness of a friend or family member, DON’T try to motivate yourself by thinking, ‘It’s selfish to avoid this situation. I should be more charitable and giving.’ This isn’t effective, and it’s an insult to your dying friend. He or she is probably not looking for your charity. It’s perfectly valid to consider his or her well being, but you have to consider yourself as well. If you ignore your feelings, you’ll end up avoiding the situation and being little or no comfort to the person who’s dying. Your support will come across as fawning and insincere.
Before confronting things head-on, you must first be easier on yourself. Don’t worry about what to say. Just ‘being there’ shows you care. Don’t feel that you must have all the answers. Just be a good listener.
I don’t question the sincerity of people who tell the bereaved, ‘I didn’t know what to say.’ Chances are, they don’t. But their assumptions are flawed. First, they felt that they were expected to say something that would magically make everything better, and second, they assume that all people want to be left alone when they’re experiencing a horrendous loss. Wrong on both counts.
Not everybody experiences grief in the same way. Some people do want to be left alone, at least part of the time. Death of a spouse, child or a close friend feels like a catastrophe. But during these times, it’s also natural to want stability, reassurance and continuity. And this is accomplished by contact with others. And it means a lot. The same applies to the person who’s dying. If you underrate the value of ‘being there,’ then you’re going to end up inadvertently hurting the people you thought you were helping by ‘leaving them alone.’ You’re also going to end up with a lot of unnecessary guilt and regret.
Several years ago a friend of mine was dealing with the terminal illness of her husband. She told their friends, ‘Call him and talk to him. Don’t worry about what to say. It will allow him to think about something other than doctors and hospitals. He wants to know that something else is going on in the world other than his illness.’ How insightful! Don’t assume the dying person wants to talk about his problems. If he does, you have to be ready for it, but maybe he just wants to forget for a while. Friends can provide support by simply being there.
Some of us are intimidated by people going through loss. ‘I should leave them alone during their time of sorrow.’ We begin to think of people (who just yesterday were our everyday friends) as elusive celebrities — just because somebody died. ‘Leaving them alone’ is not a rationalization for not being there.
Don’t try to motivate yourself with, ‘I shouldn’t be selfish.’ It’s OK to think of your own feelings and fears! Self-preservation is the core human motivation. And there is true self-preservation in maintaining the friendships that are important to you, even through sickness and the inevitability of death.
Don’t let procrastination and indecision turn into regret. Forever is a very, very long time.