Does someone with a dying relative better understand what someone who has lost a relative is going through?
May 4, 2009 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Does someone with a dying relative better understand what someone who has lost a relative is going through? Explanation inside.

A year and a half ago, X broke up with my best friend, Y. X stayed in my apartment after the breakup-technically, she was staying with my roommate. Shortly after that, I moved halfway across the country and didn't really keep up with X-it was a pretty nasty breakup, and while we were friends, I was always more Y's friend than X's.

A little more than a year ago, my father was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. For having metastatic cancer, he's doing wonderfully. Full remission would be a miracle, but chemotherapy is keeping the cancer at bay, we're handling the bills, and he's able to lead some semblance of a normal life on his off-weeks. It's still been a difficult experience, but I recognize that it's nowhere as difficult as it could be.

Two weeks ago, I get a text from Y -- X had called her to say that her father had died after a four month battle with cancer. I write X an email expressing my sympathies, but not mentioning my father's cancer. It felt like too much of a self-insertion into her own tragedy, and I figured there was a chance that she had already heard (we had a lot of mutual friends). Calling seemed too invasive-an email seemed to be immediate enough, but if the amount of sympathy she was receiving was too stifling, she could deal with me on her own time.

Today, I get an email from X thanking me, but also conveying that she was surprised to hear from me, and a polite wish that we could reconnect at some point.

So my question is this: Given these circumstances, would it be wise to reach out, tell her of my father's current situation, and offer a sympathetic ear as someone who might possibly understand her situation better than most people our age (we're in our early 20's)? It seems presumptuous to say so-my father is still alive. If there's anything I've learned from this experience, it's that a family member's cancer can manage to change your life in ways that you wouldn't have even thought about before-the same must happen with death. On the other hand, I've gone through half of the fear and grieving, and at least understand what the past four months have been like for her. For those who have lost a close relative, would talking to someone in my situation have helped you at all?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If she's in her early 20's, she's probably surrounded by people who haven't been touched in a serious way with catastrophic illness, or mortality (losing an elderly grandparent is a much different experience than dealing with a dying/deceased parent, spouse or child). And people who don't know what to say because they feel over their heads....often say nothing at all.

If it's within your comfort level, call her.
posted by availablelight at 6:45 PM on May 4, 2009

I lost a daughter to cancer earlier this year. We spent a long time at St. Jude's in Memphis, where many of our friends lost their children. We also have a lot of good friends who have not had children, or have not lost children, or who have never had a family member or friend so much as break a toe.

It never mattered to us whether the person spoke from similar experience, or not. The expression of compassion, unconditional support, and a patient, listening soul meant so much more. Whether it was someone who "understood" at all or not.

It sounds like your situation is motivating you to be one of those people who make the effort to care, to support and to love. That you make the effort to be compassionate and caring is a lot more important than why.

I realize that seems a little vague, but it's intended to be (and I hope, is) helpful.
posted by bunnycup at 6:46 PM on May 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Reaching out is important. Compassion is important. Support is equally important. But I would caution against bringing up your dad too much, as he is still around and doing well. When I lost my mom to brain cancer, I couldn't help but be a bit resentful of people who still had their mothers (alive), even if they did have cancer. I didn't mean to, or want to be resentful, but it happened. But I did appreciate, as bunnycup mentions, the "effort to care, to support and to love." By all means, lend your support, but just be cautious regarding the extent of using your own personal example of understanding.

And I do hope that your dad continues to do well. Best of luck to you, your family, and your rekindling friendships.
posted by cachondeo45 at 7:06 PM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, my father died of cancer when I was 17, and I wonder if you're not overthinking this a bit? It's good that you want to comfort your friend - so just do it. Don't go thinking you have to have X amount of grief cred.

You seem like quite a sensitive, thoughtful person and I understand your desire not to say the wrong things or somehow cause your friend any more pain. But really, she is not going to be judging every word you say for appropriateness, relevance, presumptuousness, etc. I suspect that the way she feels, there's just not much you can say to make her feel any worse. She'll probably appreciate your approaching her with kindness, and you'll clearly have no problem doing that. Moreover, your experiences, even if they are not identical to hers, are valid and, I expect, helpful. You've both been forced to think about a lot stuff that a lot of people our age don't have to. And no two people experience sickness and dying in the same way, anyway. So just talk. Be supportive. No expertise necessary.

Also, here's wishing you, your father and your family the best.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 7:15 PM on May 4, 2009

My grandmother just died a couple of months ago. I'm handling it okay, but from the experience post-funeral, there are miles of difference between the expectation of death and the actual death. Even if you think you've gone through all the grieving and mourning, things change when the person really is gone. I don't think you should act like you can relate to her -- everyone's experiences are different. About the best anyone can do is agree that the death of a loved one can be scary or sad sometimes, and honestly that doesn't require that you are directly experiencing death.

Be a friend for Y if you want to be a friend for Y. If she says that she feels like she can't relate to anyone or no one can relate to her, you could certainly bring up your situation. Also, it may be perfectly fine for this to become about you getting support yourself for what you're going through. If the unthinkable happens and your father succumbs to the cancer, you will have a friend you've already confided in who has a personal experience losing a father to cancer at a young age. This may be very helpful for you.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:30 PM on May 4, 2009

Here's the crazy thing: even people who have lost a dear one don't exactly understand what someone else is going through in a similar situation - we all have different experiences, different understandings of our important relationships, different ways in which people are/were special to us ... so even if you were approaching this as another person whose father had died, it wouldn't necessarily mean that you were any more or less qualified to help comfort X than anybody else. I speak from experience, as someone whose dear friend lost her father about two years after I had lost my father ... the fact that I cared for my friend and wanted to be supportive, I think, meant more than whatever similarities or differences there were in our specific situations. Actually, people who presumed to know "just how I felt" after my dad had died were a whole lot harder for me to deal with than people who understood that every experience was different and that what I really needed was space and acceptance to come to grips with my loss and grief on my own terms.

To me the bottom line is this: If you feel close enough to X to be willing to reach out to her, I'd lend my vote to all the others so far who have said you would be doing a good thing to do so. In the end I really don't think it matters so much whether or not you've lost a parent; the important thing is to help her to feel that her grief, howsoever she experiences and expresses it, is acceptable and unique to the relationship she had with her dad. You're a good person to want to reach out to her; I wish you and her both all my best.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:38 PM on May 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

For those who have lost a close relative, would talking to someone in my situation have helped you at all?

No. Your dad is still alive, you have no idea what she's going through. You can pick up the phone and call your dad. She can just pick up the phone and then suddenly be hit, yet again, by the fact that her dad is dead and she will never, ever be able to talk to him, see him, hear his voice, feel his hug again. Ever. He is gone from all five of her senses and there is nothing left but memories.

You've got it backwards, she knows exactly how you feel, but you don't have a clue what she's going through and won't until, god forbid, your dad dies. If you want to be there for your friend, then be there. But don't make it some pity party of "Oh, I know how you feel, I can help you." That reeks of self absorbed naivety.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:45 PM on May 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to add this. After my father died, I didn't really want to talk about his death at all. For some people, it's just easier to be sad in your room at night than to drag all those nasty feelings out for everybody all day long.

So while I think you should reach out to this person, and while you likely have a better understanding of her feelings than some of her other friends, try to remember not to make grief the centre of your relationship. Let all the sad knowledge you both have be background information. Be sensitive to her situation and her needs, but generally, expect to talk about normal things. Remember you're not her grief counsellor. And that in fact, that would be a very dangerous role to assume, even in the unlikely event that that was she wanted.

(You probably know all this already, but just in case.)
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:13 PM on May 4, 2009

My father died very unexpectedly when I was a teenager and I think that Brandon and two or three cars got it right. I don't think that you can related to her situation anymore than her other friends. I know that I really didn't like talking about it. The best support that I received were the friends who continued to be "normal" with me. They gave me the support that I needed by just being there, catching me up on what was going on out in the world (I spent enough time dealing with the death in my head).

FWIW - I did find that as time went on I could and can always relate to others who have lost a parent, child or sibling on a different level that I can with anyone else. Many people would check in, want to know how I was doing but the people who had experienced that loss NEVER asked stupid things like that, they know that it sucks but you have to move on.

So my advice, don't make it about her grief (you do NOT understand it) but make it about being her friend and that you care about her.
posted by saradarlin at 8:28 PM on May 4, 2009

After losing my dad to a car accident at about your age, it felt like I'd turned radioactive overnight. My uncomfortable peers avoided me, family was scattered and unhelpful. For what it's worth, I would have given anything just to have someone to talk to about it, and they certainly wouldn't have needed any kind of "tragedy cred".
posted by bunji at 12:11 AM on May 5, 2009

Forget comparing a parent's death with a serious illness. She certainly will appreciate someone with the same frame of reference vis a vis cancer.
My father died of cancer and for a long time I had a very different outlook of it than most people - almost touchy about people flippantly referring to it.

I will also advise what's been said, don't try to make it about you, but just showing that you can commiserate will help.
posted by parabola01 at 4:18 AM on May 5, 2009

(It's hard to write cogent answers to difficult questions while you are at work. I hope this conveys the sense of what I mean!)

I would tell her.

As others have said, the point isn't, "I understand you COMPLETELY and know EVERYTHING that you are thinking and feeling," the point is, "Wow. This is hard. So very hard. And I don't know what you are going through, but my parent is ill, and I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on what is important, and what is valuable. And I am perhaps a bit more sensitive to supporting a friend at this point in time, because I need support myself during this time. I am here."

Then email her, to see how she is. Because if you email her in a week, many will have forgotten that she needs support. If you email her in a month, still more will have forgotten. In three months, probably no one is asking her how she is. And it still may be one of the largest things in her life.

(My situation is not the same thing. But I am in my early twenties and my father passed away two years ago. Two very close friends had lost their fathers recently as well. Now, the three of us are wildly different people who dealt with it in wildly different ways. Our fathers died in very different ways: a freak avalanche accident, years with cancer, and a very rare neurodegenerative disorder. The similarity was that they knew that this SUCKED. And that it was hard. That I felt crazy, and angry, and a bit lost. That I had a bit of a different view of the world, that I saw everything differently at that time.

One friend left me a message that said, "teragram, I would never suggest that I know what you are going through, but I may have some idea. Whatever you need, I am here." The point wasn't that his father died. The point was that he reached out to me moreso than my other friends did.)
posted by teragram at 7:32 AM on May 6, 2009

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