Help me help my friend through her dad's death.
September 4, 2006 9:00 AM   Subscribe

My friend's father just died after a very short battle with cancer. My friend's sometimes a little unstable. What can I do?

My best friend called me at 4:00 this morning to tell me her dad had passed away. She was completely unemotional and I think she actually may be in shock. Her dad had been fighting melanoma for the last few months. On Friday, the doctor told her and her mother that there wasn't anything more they could do for her dad and that they'd keep him comfortable in the hospital. She didn't visit him much this weekend as she actually just opened her first restaurant on Wednesday. Luckily, the restaurant was closed on Sunday and she was able to spend all day and most of the evening with him. The hospital sent her family home at midnight, and her mother received a call at around 3:00 this morning asking her to bring the family back. Her father had already died, peacefully, in his sleep.

My friend and I had about a ten-minute conversation early this morning, when I asked a few questions about how her dad died and gathered the information above. She says she's perfectly fine and doesn't need to talk. I told her I'd check in with her later today and that she should call me if she needs anything.

My concern is that my friend tends to repress her emotions and later jump off the deep end, so to say. Her last four breakups have been difficult - she says she's fine for about two weeks and then completely breaks down and says she's worthless and starts talking about why she's around to begin with and no one loves her. She never threatens to hurt herself but I know she has thought about it (when she gets over her depression, she says things like, "I'm so glad I didn't do what I was thinking...").

So, if she does that with a dating relationship (and one of her worst episodes was after a four-week relationship), how is she going to handle her father's death?

Some background which may help:
She and I met when we stood up in a wedding together about four years ago. She and I hit it off immediately and were fast friends. We're both in our late 20's. She often says I am her only friend and no one else understands her. She recently stopped talking to our mutual friend (the bride) because she felt that the bride didn't care about her life. She's a restaurateur and opened up her own restaurant on Wednesday of this week. Her parents missed the opening for obvious reasons. I was there and she seemed the happiest I've seen her in a few years.

She relies a lot on me for support (I'm her first call when she breaks up with someone, and pretty much everyday thereafter through the time she breaks down, and then I have to call her everyday). I was the first call she made today, and I know she is relying on me a lot to help her through this.

She and I had talked a lot through this difficult time as my father has had very serious cancer for the last four years (the entire time I've known her). I know she expected her father's illness would progress much like my father's - a terrible diagnosis, lots of chemo, and a lot of "beating the odds" and surprising doctors. Unfortunately, that's not the way it went. She has already told me that it's not fair that my dad has had his medical successes and her dad hasn't.

I'm placed in this awkward situation where she both wants to talk to me and hate me. I don't know what to say or what to do to help her through this. I turn to you. Is there anything I can do to make sure she handles this as healthily as she can? What sorts of questions can I ask and things can I say to help her through this?
posted by MeetMegan to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My dad died a year and a half ago, about 3 weeks after being diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. He only let us take him to the doctor for a cough we'd noticed shortly after my mother's funeral a week earlier. That's just the way it is with cancer -- some types aren't easily discovered until it is too late for treatment to be effective, and for others, there is still no effective treatment. In the case of people like my father, and your friend's father, the time from diagnosis to final crisis is sometimes so short, that all we can do is become bystanders in a short whirlwind of medical diagnosis and treatment; often, there is hardly even any time to say goodbye, or come to any resolution of old family problems. But in this, we relatives of people who die from cancer are not so different than those who lose family members to sudden trauma deaths, except that we sometimes feel that we should have been able to help more, and that we somehow failed to use what time we had to the best effect possible.

I'd say your friend needs to recognize she is in for some rough days in the near future, and avail herself of whatever grief resources she can find. The hospital's social workers may have local numbers for support groups and therapists, and maybe your role is simply to get her to see that she needs, at least temporarily, a bigger circle of people to share what is coming, and that in today's world, for many of us, that circle often contains many "rent a friends" as some professionals refer to themselves.

Being part of the funeral services, supporting her mother's grief, and carrying through with any responsibilities she may have for her father's estate, etc. will be key to how she remembers this time at some later date, but she has to get through the coming days and weeks sensibly, to get to a later time of looking back with perspective, and you are right to be worried for your friend in these next days, if she acts as erratically as you describe. But you are not her psychiatrist, or her family, and you may help her best by just listening, and being persistent in your attendance of the friendship. It may be that in the coming days, it will be your job to hold this friendship for her for a while, as she deals with other things, and if you can just do this, can just be custodian and keeper of a friendship she wants but can't attend to properly right now, you are doing enough.

Understanding and empathy mean a lot when they come from someone who doesn't always bundle them in good advice and healthy expectations. Good luck.
posted by paulsc at 9:42 AM on September 4, 2006

It is entirely normal for the bereaved to be in shock and somewhat unemotional for several weeks. There's only so much you can do except be there.

The fact she just opened a restauraunt may give her an excuse to stuff this for awhile (obviously she will be incredibly busy) so best thing you can do is make sure you maintain contact with her.
posted by konolia at 9:42 AM on September 4, 2006

My father died three weeks ago, just seven weeks after being diagnoses with bowel, lung and liver cancer. Please pass on my condolences to your friend.

The best I can offer in terms of your question is a request that you react, not proact. You friend will handle this exactly as she handles it, and your job is to support where it's required, not to second-guess what she might do and try and avert it.
posted by benzo8 at 10:08 AM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

As someone who has had a family member die, I think benzo8's advice is exactly correct.
posted by about_time at 10:51 AM on September 4, 2006

Everything benzo8 said.

It's not your job to make her feel anything, and it could likely be dangerous to her mental health if you try. After my mother died of cancer I could barely speak of it for at least a month -- I was also in the midst of a break-up and spent hours at the therapist talking about that rather than my loss. When I finally did start talking about my mother, and remarked that it did seem weird I hadn't *really* talked about it before, my therapist's comment was something like, "We deal with things when our bodies and minds are ready to deal with them."

If I had had a friend whose parent was also battling cancer at the time my mother had died, and that parent was still alive, truthfully? I'm not sure I'd want to talk to you right then. I really relied on some friends in ways I hadn't before at that time, and just tuned out on some otherwise good friendships because I simply didn't feel those people understood the crippling enormity of the loss I had just had, or were trying to turn me into their version of what a grieving daughter *should* be rather than just, as benzo8 said, reacting to who I actually was (which changed on a dime for the six months after her death, and continues to do so less drastically a year and a half later).

And yes, I was mad for a while at other people who were alive, other people who had parents, and other people who could make plans with their parents, no matter what their other pain might be. She's not required, or expected, to be particularly rational right now.

Just be there for her when she needs you, check in on her to make sure she's not going over the deep end, expect her to be completely unpredictable for at least the next six months, and take your cues from her. The people who helped me most were those who didn't lecture or inquire too much, but were just *there*.
posted by occhiblu at 10:53 AM on September 4, 2006

I lost a parent to cancer and found repeatedly that when I thought I'd dealt with it, it was like one of those little upswings after the big dip on the roller coaster, that led to more dips and upswings and the like until it eventually let me off.
That 'process' lasted years, but it was not just over grief, it was the loss of my mom that brought sadness and anger that had nothing to do with her death, so I learned from it and got better eventually.
You mentioned your friend had a lot of trouble dealing with break-ups, and I am not really sure what to make of her reasons for terminating contact with your mutual friend. Does your friend have what you would think is a good set of reasons for cutting off contact? And I'm sorry to put it like this, but even when she was over her depressed state, did "I'm so glad I didn't do what I was thinking..." really have the ring of truth to you? I mean, was she willing to talk about *what* she was thinking of doing?
I also wonder about her saying that it's not fair your dad dodged a bullet and hers didn't. IMO that's not entriely grief talking.
As good a friend as you are and want to be to her, draw a limit and don't let yourself take the roller coaster ride with her. I'm not saying go all Dr Phil on her...more like be your own best friend first. If you're in close proximity to each other, talk outside, walking, doing something you like to do. Just avoid the phone if you can talk in person, and if you can talk in person, do it while you're doing something else. If you're not geographically near, and the phone is your only link, and if she calls at an ungodly hour, ask her to let her call you back when you wake up. And then *do* that. Basically, find ways to gently and indirectly remind her that you can't make her feel better if she is unable (or unwilling) to.
I don't know whether this helps much but I hope it does at least some. Good luck, your post shows what a good friend you must be.
posted by nj_subgenius at 10:55 AM on September 4, 2006

Also, I've gone through some self-esteem - crushing break-ups, and they simply didn't compare in scope, content, or feeling to losing my mother. I know you're just worried about her normal repression, but I don't think you're necessarily making a valid comparison between those behaviors. They're just not at all the same thing.

And please, if you talk to her, do not compare them. There's some truth, of course, in realizing that all losses have similarities, but the areas of yourself that are clawed to pieces by a parent's death are, at least in my experience, so far removed from those that are scratched by a romantic break-up.

(When I did training for my hospice volunteer work we did an exercise in which everyone had to write down six or seven things they wanted for their future, then put those strips of paper down on the ground and someone else came by and picked them up in random order. This, of course, was supposed to teach us what death was like -- watching our dreams for the future become impossible. It was the most fucking offensive thing I've ever sat through -- MY MOTHER DIED and you're telling me you understand it because someone took away your piece of paper??? My lecture in this comment is designed to keep you from making order-of-magnitude comparisons like that.)

Also, I'm sorry to hear about your dad, and I hope he's doing well. Make sure your friend's grief also doesn't make dealing with your own family too complicated or difficult; these sorts of things can get weird, quickly.
posted by occhiblu at 11:01 AM on September 4, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the heartfelt and honest answers.

I am sure there's no "script" for dealing with a situation like this, but are there certain things I should say? Things I should avoid saying? "How are you doing" seems so overused and trite. Should I avoid talking about my family and my father? What if she asks about him (he has not been doing well recently)?

As it's been suggested, I'll be reactive to the person she is now. I have no problem with that. I also appreciate the "boundary" suggestion above.

To answer questions raised:
- She absolutely has pulled the reason for cutting contact with our mutual friend out of thin air. She says that our friend doesn't care for her life simply because our friend asked her what the name of her new restaurant was after she'd sent an email with the name in it a few weeks earlier. It's definitley not something I would cut contact over.
- She never talks specifics but it seems as though she knows how to hurt herself.
- I live about 40 minutes away from her. The problem is that I don't own a car, so all transportation has to be train, which means I would have to take a train out there and she would have to drive about 10 minutes to pick me up. I am hesitant to just go out there on a whim because it requires work/effort on her part, too.
posted by MeetMegan at 11:35 AM on September 4, 2006

I recently lost my mother to cancer, and I can honestly say that words are nothing compared to just being there. Just stand by her. Stay near her for the next few days, if you can, make no demands, and just be present.

It's heartfelt and honest to say "Please let me know if you need anything" - but she can't. She's not in a position to really vocalize what she needs, or to reach out much for help. Trust me. Six weeks later, I am still realizing what a fugue state I have been in and how incapable I would I have been of asking for help - so I was very lucky to have my boyfriend and close friends just stick by me.
posted by annathea at 12:25 PM on September 4, 2006

'How are you doing' may not be quite as good as 'How was your day?' or something similar as it's a bit more specific and may get the talking going. Your mileage etc, but active listening may be worth looking into as a way to help your friend (and yourself) navigate the difficult communications. It's a means of communicating without your having to feel at risk of saying the 'wrong thing'. You really should talk about your family if there's something you want to share, but I'd recommend being circumspect about bringing it up on your own right now unless your friend knows your family really well. I think you should respond truthfully about your father if she asks (he has not been doing well recently is as specific as you need to get, FWIW).
Again, I hope it helps. If you care to, email.
posted by nj_subgenius at 12:30 PM on September 4, 2006

My own mother died last year: we had four months after we found out the cancer we'd known about for only a couple of months was going to kill her. There is nothing you can do to make it better. But you can at least try, because it's better than actively ignoring the situation (and/or crossing the street to avoid them, as happened to my dad, like it was contagious or something): be there, for starters. Like everyone has said, be around. Try and avoid the open-ended stuff, though: "if there's anything I can do" or "if you ever want to talk" can sound a bit obligatory, and she's unlikely to take you up on such an offer. Just thinking of stuff that needs doing can be an added challenge at a time when your brain is utterly useless. Try suggesting things that maybe you could help with - shopping, paperwork, maybe there's specific times of the day/week when it especially gets to her and you ringing would be especially helpful. Make sure you keep up contact, as she may not contact you.

She'll probably say stuff to you there's no reply to: I was very bitter for a long time, and there's really no answer as to why my mum had to die when other people's are alive, or why her dad died and yours didn't. Don't feel like you have to answer - it's good to be able to let such things out - but don't negate it either. Yeah, terrible things happen to the best people, sometimes things happen for no reason, but she doesn't need to hear that right now. Just hug her, or make sure she at least knows she's got your full attention. At the same time, I'd shut any comments about how her dad deserved to die and yours didn't right down: yes, grief makes you think some crazy things sometimes, but you've got the right not to take that sort of thing. Tell her you appreciate (don't say you understand: you couldn't understand) that it's unfair but saying such things is crossing a line.

And one last thing: don't go overboard on the sympathy. Personally (and talking to friends of mine who've also lost a parent), I got absolutely sick of the sympathetic glances and hand-holding. I'm not saying that you should crack jokes or pretend it's not happening: just lay off the wrapping in cotton wool. And for God's sake don't worry about saying the wrong thing: I mean, it'd take an awful lot to make the situation worse.

You're being a good friend, don't worry. I will always be indebted to the friends who stayed around for me during that awful time, and I can only hope I can be as good a friend to them when they need it. She's lucky to have you.
posted by terrynutkins at 2:44 PM on September 4, 2006

Things not to say: anything that obscures how bad this sucks. "He's in a better place," "Everything happens in God's time," "At least he didn't suffer long," etc. None of that matters; none of that brings him back. If you knew her father, mention things that you liked about him, things that you'll miss about him. Talk about your father if she asks, but remember that she's got a one-track mind right now (pain!), so it's probably better to be brief. It sucks, but she isn't in a position to be a support for you right now. I would avoid comparing the two situations, because her father is dead and you can't relate to that. Resist the temptation to try.

And let her be angry. Let her be angry at him for not getting it diagnosed earlier, at the doctors for not being able to do anything, at your father for recovering, at you for still having a father, at God for letting it happen, at herself for not being at the hospital more. That anger is her love for her father, and it's got to come out one way or another, so see it for what it is and make room for it. Let her say all those awful things, and remember that she doesn't mean half of them, just the emotion behind them.

Don't wait for her to call you. Check in with her. Make sure she knows people are thinking about her. Bring her food when you get a chance to visit. Food is so much effort when you're in shock. Ask her if she's eating, how she's sleeping, if she's able to concentrate at work.

And if she collapses in a few weeks like you're predicting, let her know how and when you can be there for her. If you can't come every day, but you can phone her at such-and-such a time, let her know that. Be there when you say you can, but take care of yourself at the same time.
posted by heatherann at 2:45 PM on September 4, 2006

When my mother died this last January after a short-lived stint in the hospital (two weeks), I had lost 15 pounds, most of it muscle as I was slim to begin with. One of the things that made the biggest difference that friends and coworkers did for me is ensure that I ate after her death; they quite literally kept me alive.

Make sure she eats, if she appears to be losing weight. Good luck to you and hang in there.
posted by seancake at 5:42 PM on September 4, 2006

I think it's normal also to be in shock for a while.

If you ever think she is honestly going to harm herself, or if she ever hints at it but won't talk more about it, call the police. I did it once for an Internet friend. She told me over IM that she was going to, and when I called her at her house she wouldn't talk to me. So I called the police in her county. She hated me for about 2 years but now we're great friends again. I can't say whether or not she got therapy because of me, but she's never done it again. At least she knows I was serious about her getting help, and at least I don't have a dead friend on my conscience. It is very much a judgement call on your part whether you call the police or not, but better safe than sorry.

(And I say that as someone who attempted suicide in the past as well.)
posted by IndigoRain at 7:43 PM on September 4, 2006

Another point: It seems like acquaintances generally remembered and were sympathetic about the death for a week or two, good friends for a month. Then everyone just... stopped caring, it seemed. I mean, I understand that people have their own lives and they certainly shouldn't drop everything to focus on me, but the one-month mark was really hard for me because it felt like everyone had just forgotten my mother had ever existed, and had forgotten that I was in pain. If you can, try to keep checking in for a few months (obviously, you can scale back the frequency).
posted by occhiblu at 10:06 PM on September 4, 2006

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