Friend's mother has cancer — What should I say or do?
The mother of one of my best friends from high school was diagnosed with liver cancer a few months ago. She is quite ill and in a lot of pain. She's been in and out of the hospital lately and things don't look so good. My own father was diagnosed with prostate cancer a year and a half ago, but he is really doing quite well (with medication, treatment, etc.). My friend's mother will probably be dead within six months to a year, so I'm not going through an immediate crisis.
My question is: What things should (and shouldn't) I be saying to, and doing for, my friend? I try so hard to be there for her but I really don't know what she's going through. She is very matter-of-fact about the fact that her mom is going to die. But I'm sure there's something I could be doing, isn't there? I hate feeling like I'm actually making her feel worse! Could you give me some idea of what she might be going through right now and how I could help? Even if it's a method for taking her mind off it occasionally (if that's a good idea).
Just Trying to Help
Dear Just Trying to Help,
It seems as though your friend's lucky to have you in her life, and that you're already playing a supportive role by being there when she needs you. It's hard to know exactly what your friend is going through — everyone deals with illness and loss in different ways. The best (and maybe only) way to know is to ask her. She may or may not want or be able to share her experience with you, but to ask is one way to show you care. In terms of what she needs, again, it's hard to know unless you ask; however, there are many ways you can show and offer support (more on that below). Different people crave and require different types of support. Similarly, you may be better or more comfortable providing certain types of support over others.
First, letting your friend know that you're there and ready to listen and support her whenever and however feels right for her is helpful for opening the door so that when she's ready, she knows she can rely on you. You can also let her know that being there also doesn't mean that anyone has to talk. It's okay to sit in silence, too. Sometimes just being with someone can be incredibly supportive, even if no words are exchanged. In terms of taking her mind off her mother's illness — ask her. Would she like to go to the movies one night? Or visit a museum? Maybe go shopping? Or meet for coffee, etc.? It'll all depend on how she's feeling at that moment, whether or not the day was a particularly difficult or good day, whether she'd rather not take her mind off her mother's illness, or whether she's at the point where she really would appreciate a break.
You can also offer her tangible support — offer to take on some of her responsibilities such as cooking meals, running errands, or doing housework. Depending on your friend, relieving her of these day-to-day activities may help to ease her burden.
Last, you may consider expressing your own feelings with your friend if the moment feels right — telling her how you feel, with respect to your father's illness, her mother's illness, and your day-to-day life. Being real with your feelings when you can sense that there's capacity for it will help nurture your friendship and help you each deal with the ups and downs of life. If you feel overwhelmed, it may be useful to talk to a mental health professional. You could even encourage your friend to do so too if and when she's ready.
The best thing you can do is to continue being her friend. Even though you may not know what to say, staying by her side and being for her can be some of the best things you can do. It's key to acknowledge the situation rather than avoid it. If she seems distant at times, it's to be expected, and you can hold space for that. Keep providing your friendship. You don't have to force your companionship; just let her know you're around for whatever she needs — for talking, listening, laughing, or for a good night out to forget. Make sure you consistently show up when she does take you up on any of your offers. Knowing that she has a good friend may make all the difference.
To friendship, through the best and worst of times.
Originally published Dec 05, 1994
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