Maintaining friendships when your child is dying takes work

FriendsI’ve read a lot about and heard many parents talk about losing their friends following their child’s diagnosis.  Call me lucky, but my experience couldn’t be more different.

While I have also gained a whole new bunch of friends from this experience, I can say with absolute certainty that I have not lost a single friend since Aidan’s diagnosis.

So in today’s blog I want to talk about friendships and why some friends stick around and others don’t.

Why friends sometimes fail

In an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Keren Ludski from the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement gives the following reason for why friends find it hard to cope.

“We tend to be a society that likes to ‘fix’ things and when we find ourselves in a position where we are unable to ‘fix’ the situation we may find this incredibly confronting.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a breast cancer survivor and well-known speaker on the topic following the launch of her book, ‘How to be a friend to a friend who’s sick’. Letty describes the friendship dynamic as this, “We struggle with our own powerlessness which is deeply unsettling to us and often makes us behave in bizarre ways.”

“We may freeze or panic in the face of another person’s misery, botch gestures meant to ease, attempt to problem-solve when we have no idea what we’re talking about, say the wrong thing, or talk too much. Some of us don’t visit our sick friends at all. Others visit, overstay, and make things worse.”

How to be a good friend

Being a loving and supportive friend is not about visiting, cooking a freezer full of meals and calling every day, it’s about being the friend you have always been.

My friends play different roles in my life – some are in similar situations and have a deeper understanding of what I am going through, some I tell my deepest, darkest secrets to, some are good at understanding why I behave the way I do and others just make me laugh. I love them all for very different reasons and I wouldn’t want them to change for anything.

Knowing that friends don’t always behave in the way we want them to, I have put together a few helpful points for those who are supporting a friend whose child is chronically ill.

  • Be honest about your feelings. It’s ok to say you are sorry that this happened. It’s ok to cry. You too are experiencing a loss.
  • Avoid clichés like, “at least you have him this long” or “miracles happen”. These are hurtful and insensitive. (For more suggestions on what not to say to parents of a terminally ill child, read my previous post)
  • Treat your friend normally. We are both aware of the situation but we can still enjoy a laugh and gossip like we always did.
  • Don’t offer medical advice or forward new miracle cures. We have probably already heard about them and discussed them with our doctors. Believe me, we are on the ball with these things.
  • Accept that some days are good and some days are bad. Sometimes we’re going to feel sorry for ourselves. Don’t tell us to “cheer up.” We are entitled to our feelings even if they make you uncomfortable.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your problems. A friendship is a two street. We might have a lot of things going on in our life but we still care about you and your problems, no matter how trivial they may seem.
  • Listen to your friend without judgement. I know there are times when I have shocked my friends by saying things like “I wish this whole thing would be over soon” or talking candidly about death. There are very few people who let you talk openly about death or dying which can be very isolating. If your friend wants to talk about funeral plans then please let her.
  • Offer to help but don’t enforce it. It’s hard to accept help from others and sometimes requires more brain power to organise things. We’ll let you know if we need something.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out with phone calls or messages. We may be too busy or too tired to respond but we do appreciate that you are thinking of us. I love that my friends let me know they are thinking of me in times of crisis but also know when to give me my space and understand if I don’t have time to call them back.
  • Be sensitive to your friend’s needs. Parents of a sick child need to look after themselves. If you visit them in hospital, make it clear that they don’t have to entertain you. Encourage them to take a break.
  • Understand that sometimes we have to cancel at the last minute.  We know it is rude but we are not using our child as an excuse, we really do have to cancel.

The role of the parent

While I definitely feel blessed to have the most amazing friends in my life it is also important to realise that parents of terminally ill children need to play their part in maintaining a friendship. If you never return your friend’s calls, if you never ask about what is going on in your friend’s life, if you never make an effort to remember their kids birthdays and important events, then you can’t expect your friends to stick around.

Sometimes friendships fall apart because you are in a completely different place and that is a natural part of life so it’s important to cut your friends some slack too. It’s also important to remember that friends see a lot less of each other when children and careers come into the picture. Whereas I might have had time to see my friends every weekend in our 20s our time is a lot more precious in our 30s with the demands of partners, children and careers.

Not everyone will say the right thing or behave appropriately. Remember, this is new territory for your friends as much as it is for you so try to be understanding if you see that they are genuinely trying.


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