Carolyn Hax: Weathering a health crisis, without a little help from some friends

Carolyn Hax
Columnist February 11

Dear Carolyn:

I am 23. About a year ago I was diagnosed with what turned out to be a non-life-threatening cancer. During surgery and radiation, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful significant other and the care of my family. I’m healthy now.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Throughout that time, I (or my family) sent infrequent update e-mails to friends and our extended family letting them know what was going on. At one point, I announced that I was ready for visitors and phone calls. I heard from a few people, but not at all from some friends I would have expected to hear from. Since for some people I was the first to go through an illness this serious, I understand that people didn’t know how to react or what to say. Although my feelings were hurt at the time, this isn’t something I am choosing to hold grudges over.

But now, as I’m reemerging, friends will say things along the lines of, “Sorry I wasn’t in touch more, but I knew you were well taken care of,” and I don’t know how to respond. I’m not angry, but I don’t want them to think that if another friend were to ask for visitors during an illness, it’s okay to just not reply. How do I respond when friends say things like this?

Healthy but Confused


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

First of all, congratulations, both on your health and on not holding grudges.

Second: Welcome to the weirdness of crisis, where your besties can vanish while casual pals surprise and sustain you.

Now that you’re feeling better on both counts, you have an impulse to make people more crisis-friendly by educating them. I understand that. It’s not your responsibility, though — at least, it’s not your job to change the way anyone responds to some friend’s future illness.

It is your job, as a friend, to be a friend, which includes: sharing your feelings, and giving those close to you a chance to give you what you want and need.

If you look at it that way, then I think you’ll answer your own question on how to respond to your friends’ excuses. To mere acquaintances — or those whose absence didn’t rattle you — you give the hey-no-worries treatment. Give yourself permission not to get involved in their need to kid themselves.

With friends whose absence did rattle you, deploy the truth as a matter of friendship: “I was well cared for, yes, but I missed you and was hurt you didn’t come.”

If they take it as a guilt trip, then assure them that’s not your intent. Explain that you understand you were the “first pancake,” the one to spring a serious illness on an unprepared group of friends. Assure them you’re not upset or holding a grudge — you just didn’t want to give them some shallow, insincere, “Hey, no worries!” when in fact it did matter to you.

The results could be awkward. Or, the ensuing conversation could bring you closer to these select few friends than before (while the heroic, once-casual pal reverts to casual). That’s just the way these things go, so, speak for yourself and see where that takes you.

You have this at your back, at least: Whatever your friends serve up, you’ll have already have weathered much worse.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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