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Dilemmas: Why do pals ignore my dying?

Dear Virginia, A month ago I was told that I have terminal cancer and I have only about a year to live. I can talk about it openly with my children and family, who are, of course, very upset but are helping me make the most of the time I have left. But hardly any of my friends will mention it, even if I bring it up. I feel so upset and angry. Sometimes just a 'how are you?' or 'are you having any more chemo?' would be nice. What can I do? Wendy

I find most people's attitudes to death and dying quite baffling. After all, it's going to happen to all of us, so surely we should be prepared for the possibility? But most people try not to face up to facts. It's as if, although they know they've got a date to fly to Australia, they're astonished when the flight is actually called, and it turns out they haven't even begun packing their suitcase, let alone booked a car to the airport.

You may have always been one of those people who has been fully aware of the possibility of death coming at any point in your life. If not, this knowledge that your doctor has given you has forced you to face up to the fact pretty quickly, and with the help of your family, you've obviously come to terms with it up to a point at least. But your friends haven't. And you can no more expect them to be able to cope than you can expect a child of three to understand long division. No doubt he could understand it, but it's just that he's never been taught. These friends of yours are both frightened and, I'm afraid, lazy and dishonest. They've tried not to think about death because it worries them and confuses them, when what they should be doing, since they're going to be up for it sooner or later, is milking you for insights, and preparing themselves, by helping you confront it, for the inevitable time when they, too, are going to kick the bucket.

Oh, they'll excuse not talking about it of course, saying things like "we don't want to upset you," when in fact they mean "we don't want to upset ourselves". Or they'll say to themselves "I'm sure she doesn't want to talk about it," when they mean, "I'm certain I don't want to talk about it". When they chatter on about other things they think they're helping you keep your mind off the subject -- as if anything could keep your mind off such a big thing! -- but all they're doing is keeping their own minds off it.

If you want to talk about it, you'll have to come right out and ask for what you want. "Do you know, there's one thing that would really help me deal with this," you can say. "Oh, what's that?" your friends will say, hoping you're going to ask them to bring round a bottle of wine or go for a walk in the country. "Talking about it," you reply, "that is what I find really helpful. And do you know -- when people avoid talking about it and referring to it, it makes me feel really low and upset."

Don't pull any punches. Say what you want. True friends -- however frightened and confused they are -- will at least try to fulfil your wishes.

they're just scared

The short answer is that your friends are scared and shocked. These feelings are uncomfortable for them and they may be associating those feelings with you. It may be that they simply need a little more time to adjust to the news and let it sink in. Many people haven't a clue about the process of cancer treatment, so may not know what to ask anyway.

It might help to own up to your feelings of anger and sadness. For instance, you could say to Friend A that you are upset with Friend B because he/she is behaving as if nothing is wrong.

It may also be that they feel you are living with this daily and don't want to be reminded of it. So making them aware that you are happy to talk might help. Good luck, and I hope the doctors are wrong.

>Deirdre, by email

you can help them

It's a strange fact, attested by clergy among others, that those who are very ill can often be better at cheering up the healthy than the other way round.

As one who is well, I can understand our 'let's pretend it's not happening' culture: we tend to shy away from death, and a close friend who reminds us of our mortality can be an embarrassment. If you can get over being upset and angry (and please forgive me if this sounds insensitive), you may be able to help your fair-weather friends by confronting them with the truth. If they continue to shy away, they may still be friends but perhaps not your closest friends -- I just hope that you have enough of those closest ones to give you the strength you need in the days ahead. Wendy, I am sure our thoughts are with you.

>Donal, Kilkenny

ask for what you need

Unless they have experience of a similar situation in their own lives, even the closest of friends are at a loss when it comes to dealing with this kind of news. For all they know, a casual enquiry might be unwelcome or provoke a reaction they can't deal with. So they may try to carry on as normal because they believe that this is the best way to help you to cope.

Your own attitude can also influence this. If they see you being very controlled and apparently "in charge" they will take their cue from you and act accordingly.

It's early days. You will be angry and you will sometimes feel very much alone; but don't give up on your friends. Let them know how you are feeling, and help them to understand what would be welcomed and what would not. I am afraid one or two may disappoint you, but others will come up trumps, even some you would not expect to.

You will also find fellow patients can be great support. It's a hard road to walk, but you will find help and comfort -- often where you least expect it.

>Sue, by email