Dying and the nature of friendship.

By Doug Gosling January 7, 2012

Having cancer can significantly change your friendships. You lose some and others surprise you by becoming closer. This has certainly been my experience. And when I became terminal, it changed even more. I’m finding that this is quite common. I thought it would useful to share some examples with you to help you understand what life can be like for those of us on the downslide.

You can lose friends for lots of reasons. One way is pretty obvious. If your illness prevents you from working, you are going to suddenly find yourself disconnected from dozens of people who have been your “”friends”” for years. Unless you have established a couple of strong friendships outside of work, you just won’t see them anymore. I’ve left behind lots of work friends as I’ve moved around jobs and really don’t see any of them anymore. Once in a while I will get a call or an email, which I really appreciate, but none of them are part of my support system now.

But then there are your other friends, the ones who have been with you for years before you were ill. Many of our friends are couples, originally met through our kids when they were very young. Many of these friends have stayed with us and have pitched in to varying degrees to help out. We know that they will be with us all the way through this and, hopefully, will also be there for Dianne as she makes a new life. She worries about this, but I know they will be there for her. Sometimes, though, we can be lax in returning calls from our friends because we are going through a tough time. After particularly bad news, we often find ourselves “”hunkering down”” at home and not really up to talking to anyone. So we let the phone ring and it might even be a couple of weeks before we return a call. I hate when this happens but, at the time, we were pretty inwardly focused. I know this happens to lots of people. Most of our friends understand and give us the space when we need it but others may feel snubbed. This can sometimes cause a distancing which can become permanent if we don’t do something about it.

But this isn’t always the case. Many people can’t handle it when their friends get an illness. We lost many friends when I first got cancer and I know others who have also. People don’t know what to say so they just avoid it by avoiding you, by staying away. It makes you wonder just how close the friendship was in the first place. And it’s worse when you are terminal because that is one huge elephant in the room. Good friends know that they don’t need to talk about it all the time, but they also know that it must be very difficult for us and they try to help. If it’s not an open ear, it could be a meal or an offer to help out at times. But there are some who can’t handle negativity in their lives and, as a dying friend, you poentially bring a lot of that with you. It’s a matter of perspective though because it can bring out a lot of positive things in people who are willing to offer a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand. In fact, sometimes it can turn a casual acquaintence into a close friend. It has certainly happened to us. While we have had friends who have distanced themselves from us, we have others who have become closer. One couple who we hardly ever saw before (mostly just the women getting together once in awhile for coffee) has become exceptionally close. They really understand our situation and always ask how we are and go out of their way to ensure I’m comfortable. Knowing how much I love the water and the outdoors and how I miss my old kayaking and campling trips, they made sure to have us up to their cottage many times this past summer. They care and we love them for it.

There are other reasons for friendships to change. One person I talked to felt that she was pushing people away herself. She knows she is doing it, and doesn’t want to, but can’t seem to stop it. Maybe subconsciously she wants to be left alone or has resigned herself to a loss that may seem inevitable for her. On the other hand, people may have already had too much loss and sadness in their lives and can’t handle any more. I respect this.

Regardless of the reasons, it hurts to lose friends. But you also meet some really nice people along the way and sometimes new friendships develop and flourish. And that is what’s really important in all of this – we need to have friends around. We need people around us to keep reminding us that life is real and good and, no matter how long we have, that there is still a lot of living that can be done, if perhaps more in terms of quality than quantity. I want people who love me close on this journey and, just as importantly, I want them close to my family after I’m gone.

Family situations can be even more complex and subject to change. My son left home when I was first diagnosed nine years ago and we have struggled to have a relationship ever since. I love him and I know he loves me, but I don’t feel like he’s really there for me. He’s over 2,000 miles away and has missed so much. But maybe he can’t help it any way (like I say, it’s complicated) but it still hurts. On the other hand, I have developed a closer relationship with my older brother who wants to be there to support me. And my daughter has moved in with us, along with her fianc√©, to help us out, and I know both of them will be around to support Dianne after.

Love is always good and can help to heal the soul if not the body. So thanks to all of you, friends and family, for being here for me now. I hope that I can give you something in return, including the knowledge that you are needed and loved.