Monday, April 30, 2012

Don't Ask, Do Tell: A Response

I wrote a blog post about a very sensitive subject: if you knew you were dying, would you tell your friends?

Most people were clear that they’d want to know if a friend of theirs was dying. But most people wouldn’t want to share similar news about themselves.

One of the comments I received deserved more than a quick response on the blog post. This is it:

I have cancer. Telling people was harder than dealing with the disease. The look of devastation on my best friend’s face cut right through my heart. After that, I avoided telling people as long as possible – dealing with their hurt and anxiety on top of the turmoil of emotions and fears I was carrying already (not to mention feeling ill) was just too much. And what can people do? Tell you how upset they are? For some people, they need to get to grips with the reality of having a terminal illness before dealing with everyone else’s reaction to it.

It doesn’t get more personal than this.

Yes, this is the fear everyone has, I think, of sharing devastating news. The initial reaction is bad enough, but then what? Will your friends behave differently around you now? Will they cry? Will you wind up comforting them?

I’ve seen beautiful, loving reactions from friends. I’ve seen selfish reactions from friends. And I’ve seen friends who were so stunned they didn’t know what to say or do.

But this is my response to Anonymous, for what it’s worth:

Cancer sucks and I’m sorry you have to deal with it. I hope it’s treatable and curable. Telling your best friend was an act of incredible courage. Their reaction – that look you saw – was terrible to witness, but obviously came from their love for you.

I agree that everyone needs to come to terms with a serious health challenge in whatever way makes sense to them. It’s just that sometimes the adjustment can be helped by the support of friends, to help keep you focused and sane and optimistic.

As for ‘what can people do?’ They can do a lot, though it will not seem earth-shattering to either of you. They can continue to be your friends, however you define that friendship. If you let them know it’s business as usual as far as your love for them, you’ll be giving them the chance to respond in kind.

You don’t have to make calls or visits to every single friend you have (a lot, I hope). But maybe you can designate one friend as your “personal assistant”. Have them set up a private Facebook group for keeping people up to date on your progress. That way your friends are in the loop, but you don’t have the added physical and emotional burden of responding to calls, visits, posts and emails (unless you want to). I’ve seen this work beautifully.

When my friend, Delle, announced on her Yahoo groups that she was discontinuing treatment for her cancer, there was a tremendous outpouring of love. “Save it for the funeral,” she objected. “I’m not dead yet.”

I told her it was too damn bad she had so many friends who loved her, and she’d just have to suffer through hearing it while she was still here.

Many of us who are so willing to support our friends, to be there for them in dark times, are reluctant to let them return the love.

What Anonymous decides to do will ultimately be what they believe is right for them. We all need to do what’s right for us.

Just don’t be afraid to let your friends love you as long as they can.

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