Guess vs Ask, grieving edition
September 15, 2013 7:15 AM   Subscribe

Dealing with grief, unsure how to ask friends for support, if at all.

My Dad has been been battling cancer the past few years, and after almost two years of apparent remission, was diagnosed with local aggressive recurrence back in March. The symptoms are progressing rapidly. We have always been very close as a family and I am very involved in my father's care (the doctor visits, arranging tests, all the logistics). When I first learned of his disease, a few years back, I was in the process of breaking up with someone, and for the first few months for a year I was basically in survival mode, crying or sleeping whenever I wasn't at my Dad's house, most of the time.
It's like I started grieving for him then. Then he got better for a while, even though he was noticeably weaker. I got into a better mental space, and my life also improved, with a new hobby and some new friendships.
This year we learned he has a recurrence. It was hard. There were some really difficult decisions to make, and... also lots of sadness, and fear, and uncertainty.
We grew even closer and this is the part for which I am grateful. My Dad is surrounded by love, and as much companionship as he can handle.

When all this started, my friends were supportive. They called, they invited me over, they sent messages. I was grateful, and tried not to impose on them too much. I knew it can be exhausting to deal with someone else's grief so I tried to not to ask for help too often, but in general, I felt safe in doing so. Most of the time, all I needed was just some together time, like going out for ice-cream, or for a walk, but there were a few times when I called them just to cry, and again, they were great about it.

During late spring and early summer, Dad's health stabilized, and we had a good time together as a family. It was also a good time with friends, we socialized a lot, and did some fun activities together.

And now Dad is worse, and deteriorating rapidly. There are days when I have it all together, and days where I cry, cry, cry.
I also feel very lonely, this time, because my friends seem to be pulling away. There are days where I'd just like for someone to sit by me and hold me while I cry but I do not feel like it's an appropriate thing to ask anyone but a very close friend, if someone's not offering. I am afraid of coming across as too needy. I feel like have used up my allowance back in March, and could use some reassurance it's still OK to call them and cry, you know? I'm pretty sure if I called any of them and right-out asked for a walk, or a chat, or (maybe) coming over, they would do it, because who wouldn't? But they do not call me on their own, like ever. They know what's going on, because I saw them a few times doing a group activity, and they asked how things were, and I told them, and they asked how I was and if I needed anything, and I said well yes, I feel sad, and I'd love to just hang out or go out for coffee/see a movie at home, or if they could call me sometimes on the phone. I shared a few updates in an email or text, going as far as saying I would love to hang out, and I get "sure, call me!" and then they are not picking up the phone. Or a friend has offered to go for a walk that very night, and then cancelled last minute.

I do have one very close friend who calls all the time, and who I normally spend a lot of time with, but who does not talk about emotional stuff ever, and we only ever talk about ideas. We both value this friendship very much but I have been calling her much less lately because I am too exhausted to have this kind of conversation we usually enjoy.

Another close friend is busy helping out one of her friends who recently suffered a major loss, and I do not want to burden her even more. And yes, I have offered her my support but she usually prefers to just withdraw into her space when overwhelmed and resurfaces when she feels better, and she's said this much.

So it's more about the semi-close friends, as I'm realizing typing this question, people I'd been growing closer with, and spending more and more time with, the past year and a half. I sometimes wonder if I'm just too needy, and should just deal with it on my own, or whether I'm not communicating well.
Some days I think it's less about the absence of support, and more about the friendships themselves, and the realization we were not as close as I thought we were, and that the mutual sharing of confidences, and hanging out every week does not a close friend make, and I am not trying to be snarky, this is like a new realization for me.

So my question is, as a Guesser who has been trying to adapt some Ask habits but found they feel weird to me...
How do I communicate with people who are offering help but then flaking on me? Am I too passive? Is there an appropriate way to ask someone for their time/support without making it awkward for them to refuse? And how much is too much to ask?

Thanks, and please do not be too harsh with the responses. I realized, typing this, that I have a lot of growing up to do... but I'm really trying.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Don't write off your friend who you share ideas with too soon. That friend may well be able to step up and offer you the support you need. They may never be (comfortable) sharing their own feelings but may be able to cope with yours just fine. Reach out to that friend and see what happens. Good luck!
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:28 AM on September 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might see if there is a local chapter of Gilda's Club near you. The Seattle chapter's website -- -- will give you an idea of the kind of services they offer.

Take care.
posted by Boogiechild at 8:12 AM on September 15, 2013

going as far as saying I would love to hang out

I would swap that for "Would you like to do activity X at time/date/place" stuff.

"I need support" can put people, especially people who have not had similar experiences, in a "Oh, great, I can do that! Uh, @#$*, I don't know what to do. I'll sit back and wait until I am asked for something" spot. Be specific. In the face of the last-minute cancellation: "Hey, no worries. How about Thursday, same time?"

Holding somebody while they cry would be hardcore intimacy for many, and not something I would request outside of relationships where it would happen naturally. Finding a formal support group as suggested above is good advice.

Take a look at this 'Ring Theory' of kvetching. I mention to point out that your friends on the inner circles need support, too -- which is, at present, not your problem, but one thing to consider is that if they are over-taxed they may not be able to offer an optimal level of support, and that has nothing to do with how much they care for you.
posted by kmennie at 8:39 AM on September 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you considered a support group or bereavement-focused therapy? Elping someone else through their grief is difficult, and sometimes a professional or a group of understanding people are the best place to turn. Plus, in those circumstances you don't need to feel guilty about unburdening yourself- that's what they're for.
posted by windykites at 9:09 AM on September 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Support groups are great for this kind of thing. It's what they're for. Friendships are give and take and as much as I'm sure your new friends are lovely supportive people, theyre still new developing relationships and you haven't had an opportunity to give yet.

Even among the closest friends, even within families, chronic issues are harder to support than acute crises. The vibes you're picking up on are probably correct, you need more steady reliable support right now than your new friends can provide.

Look into support groups where you can unburden yourself thoroughly, and then when you go out for ice cream with friends, you will be able to enjoy the ice cream and the company and the shared experience, and the friendships will grow on their own.
posted by headnsouth at 9:31 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you tried a grief support group? Everyone there would be there for the same reason.

Thanks, and please do not be too harsh with the responses. I realized, typing this, that I have a lot of growing up to do... but I'm really trying.

I wanted to address this. Nothing in your questions suggests that you are immature. Asking for help is the mature thing to do. I think you are being to hard on yourself.
posted by parakeetdog at 9:37 AM on September 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

For whatever reasons - and it's probably not that they're bad people, they're just not experts - your friends are having trouble helping you right now. The ones who are flaking don't know how to say no, the ones who aren't communicating don't know what to do or are too freaked out by the concept of what's happening to you.

It kind of sounds like you guys are younger, early-mid 20s? Very few if any of those people have been through what you're going through, or if they have it wasn't as adults. They have no frame of reference, and unfortunately it is really unlikely that any of them have the insight or grace to know to offer to hold you while you cry, or to be able to accept that most of their interaction with you is going to be about you rather than a give-and-take. This is part of the Western discomfort with death and mourning, most people just have zero frame of reference unless they've lost a parent as well.

(And as you get older, it's still difficult to find the kind of support you're looking for because people have their own families and work to take care of, though more of them will have been through a traumatic loss and will understand better.)

Which is why everyone is suggesting support groups. Everyone in the room will be going through or have gone through it. It's a safe space to let some of your stuff out, release the pressure a little, and then it may be easier for you to interact with your regular every-day friends in a way that is more satisfying for both sides.

I'm really sorry for your loss. You're not a bad person for being completely shattered and ground down - that part is totally normal - it's just that you may be setting yourself up to get extra hurt by wanting things that are difficult for other people to give sometimes.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:07 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't forget that it's hard for friends to be supportive over long periods too. They may well have good intentions, but are getting worn down the same as you are.

Don't feel bad for needing support or feeling grief, that's human and just what happens. And don't feel bad for feeling like your friends are flaking out on you. That's also a valid emotion. However, just because you feel it doesn't mean it is objectively true of them.

Take the support you can get, but don't get bent out of shape if you can't get exactly what you need. That can tend to prolong and confound the grieving process: you are having the negative emotions, and can accidentally transfer them onto your friends.
posted by gjc at 11:43 AM on September 15, 2013

Don't forget that it's hard for friends to be supportive over long periods too. They may well have good intentions, but are getting worn down the same as you are.

This. They may be having trouble sustaining their sympathy over what has been a period of years, off and on. Also, are you remembering to talk to your friends about their lives, too? It sounds like you're maybe making your friendships all about you and what you need right now. That's understandable, but it's not likely to garner a lot of support from friends who have their own stuff going on too.

Also, some people just aren't good with dealing with stuff like this. When my mom was dying, I tried numerous times to talk to one of my best friends about how I was feeling, and she would just change the subject every time. Maybe she thought she was distracting me, who knows.
posted by amro at 12:23 PM on September 15, 2013

My best friend was diagnosed with a rare cancer at 25, and passed away at age 30. Even though I knew for six months that she was not going to get better, when she did die the depth of my grief really surprised me. I knew I was going to be sad, but it was so much more powerful and consuming than I had imagined. It took me about a year and a half before I felt like things were "getting better". My close friends who knew her were all in the same boat as me - we were all too raw to be any good as casual everyday support - and my local friends who never met her had little grasp of what I was going through, and my best friend was dead. I ended up being really disappointed and hurt by my local friends - partially because I did get some genuinely jerky treatment, and partially because I had expectations they could not meet.

Grief is such a personal, private experience. What you want is for someone - anyone - to step in and soothe the pain and trauma, but any solace you get from friendly interaction is temporary. People like neat problems they can offer measurable help with, and grief is simply not something you can put a bandaid on and call it all better. So yeah, perversely they're going to be less inclined to do the work to set up support time with you, and because you are so sensitive and hurting, even the smallest disappointment feels huge.

I would encourage you to seek alternate sources of support for yourself and use this to enrich yourself internally. Don't be surprised if your tastes in art and literature change, and feed yourself what you are hungry for. Read a lot, from quality material (Buddhists are great). Spent quiet time in nature. Keep a journal where you can bleed out your most intense feelings. Take a vacation. Invent little rituals for yourself - I smudge my house with sage on the solstice (she passed on the solstice). I don't care if the sage is woo woo - it makes me feel calmer and that is something. You really, really have to tune into your emotions, because the pain can flare up as intense anger at seemingly unrelated things. I have made huge strides in learning how to calm myself.

Figure out small things to look forward to and put them on a calendar - it does take conscious work. If there's an upcoming movie you even feel the smallest excitement for, build a little activity around it. Make it an excuse to call up a friend or two to go with you. Don't wait for them to get in touch. Try to figure out an excuse for a small celebration about once a month, and take it upon yourself to extend the invitations and do the planning. If they flake out, go do it anyway by yourself. If they reciprocate with invitations, fantastic (and don't flake out!).

Ultimately I found that people who had already experienced and processed grief were the best to be around. They were more tolerant and patient. It seemed to take an agonizing amount of time for things to get better, but they did. It did change my understanding of friendship and what I look for in a friend. I found I was making some people a much higher priority than they were making me, and the exposed disparity was what was hurtful. I had to accept that they weren't being bad friends, they were being the same friend they had always been. I just hadn't been seeing the friendship for what it was. So now I invest in the people who invest in me, and I see casual friendships for what they are.

The short answer is: I found a Bhuddist approach to friendships works for me. Any anger or resentment turned out to be rooted in my expectations for how they "should" act or what sort of support they "owe" me as a friend. I am a lot happier with no expectations - but then, I am a lot happier with myself and my own company, too. I just don't have the energy for negative emotions that I used to have, so I tend to shrug and let go pretty quick. When someone's actions show me they are a casual friend, I stop trying to get them to be more. The awesome thing is that I have more energy to invest in genuine good friends.

We will all experience grief. You may be the first of your circle to go through it, but soon they will follow, and they will be the ones who need comfort. You may find yourself more compassionate on the other side, and perhaps you will know better how to support your friends in their time of need.

I am sorry for your impending loss - take care of yourself. It's a rough road, but it gets better.
posted by griselda at 2:13 PM on September 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

I sometimes wonder if I'm just too needy,

You are not being needy. Everyone needs someone to talk when it comes to grief. There are some things in life that you just cannot deal with alone.

People or friends aren't always supportive when it comes to grief. They may or may not realize or understand it. There also tends to be cultural influence where in some cultures death or dying is just not talked about openly. On the other hand, friendships that were genuinely not nurturing previously may feel glaringly so during such times. There is really no single answer or solution to the problem, and you are best suited to diagnose what is up with every person. Regardless of the reasons, please know that grief is something not everyone will understand, and its okay. You still need the support and you will find it elsewhere. Seek it elsewhere. Professionals and group support serve exactly this purpose. There are also many books that are helpful and feel free to email if you feel inclined.
posted by xm at 8:57 PM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I completely get not wanting to feel like a burden-you will find that there are a lot of people who have also faced profound grief and there is comfort when you are able to talk and speak about the pain without feeling like a burden-see a counselor, contact your local hospice and find out about available support groups...talking about what is happening is so important.

My father died suddenly in March and as much as I wanted to crawl away from everything-I couldn't. I was afraid to talk about it with people that I wasn't 'close' with. I didn't want to ruin their time or put them in an awkward situation...I didn't even know what I needed to say or do. Sometimes I would make plans to go out, for distraction, and I would only end up crying and talking about my father. Sometimes I feel like I am too sad...others times like I am not sad enough. Grief is a strange thing.

Not everyone is able to provide comfort or support. People could be afraid to talk about it or they don't know what to say or how to be is okay for you to say "I need ____" or "Can you help me ____" but please recognize that they may not be able to do this for you and that's okay.

To my surprise, a few of my new coworkers (my new job of less than 6 mths), who had also suffered through a loss, were the best support during the early weeks and months (second to the counselor I cried my heart out to). Your friends may be the best support you need at later stages- but for now there are support groups and counselors that will allow you to just grieve.
Memail me if you need someone to listen or someone to help you find and sign up for these things.

Also everything Griselda said is really true, it really is.
posted by W.S (disambiguation) at 12:37 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful responses. Every single one resonated with me, and I have been reading and re-reading them since yesterday. I realized I needed a sort of a mental framework for stuff, and this thread has been a real help in sorting through my complicated feelings.

I'd like to especially thank those of you who shared your own experiences. This meant a lot.

Gilda's Club sounds wonderful (none where I live but I love their website, and I'm glad it was mentioned, maybe/hopefully the link will be useful to someone in the future). I have been thinking about support groups> Our local home hospice has one for "families of our patients" so technically I do not qualify since my Dad is not in hospice right now but maybe they won't be strict about it.

I decided to give myself some time to just feel what I feel, including (not really justified) anger. I spent a few hours thinking Really Angry Thoughts to myself, really mean little spiteful thoughts. After a while, I felt much better. The anger (at no one in particular) came back this morning, and then went away again. And then I called one of my friends, and we had a great, upbeat conversation about unrelated stuff, and made a plan to hang out in a week. I know having a pre-planned Thing will help when/if the blackness hits again [one of many great suggestions in this thread].

I also decided to make a plan for self-pampering. Right now my plan includes shopping for new pajamas, a new blanket, taking more hot showers, a new book or two, and lots of carbs. And talking some time off my second job.

Thank you again. I am humbled by your insights and wisdom.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:07 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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