Carolyn Hax: Advice

How to keep in touch with ailing friend

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I have a friend who is very sick, battling cancer. I know this is not about me, so the excuse that, “I’m sorry I haven’t called/written in three months, it’s inexcusable, but I just don’t know what to say,” is glass-bowlish.

But what do I say? It doesn’t seem right to ask, “How are you?” when I know he is not well at all. I don’t know if he wants to talk about his troubles or have an escape from them. We live far apart so I don’t have any news of upcoming events to impart. I don’t want to go on about the fun things I’ve been doing lately.

The first time I contacted him after hearing the news I said I was sorry to hear about it, and how was he doing, but I can’t write that same thing to him every week. Though I would love to be in frequent contact, I honestly just don’t know how to start the conversation.

Bad Friend

You can draw on things you say here but think you can’t say to your friend directly. Such as, “I don’t know if you want a chance to talk about your troubles or escape from them. I’m happy to give you either or both – just say the word.”

Yes, there is a risk of making him do the work, but if you’re careful to present him with one or two narrowly defined choices (versus the standard, “Is there anything I can do for you,” which can be deceptively hard for people to answer), then you’re likely providing him valuable relief.

You can also keep in touch by sending things you know he will enjoy – good books, articles, fiction, cartoons, music playlists, so many things that are easy to transmit now but hard to sort through for someone who feels ill. You can draw on what you already know about him, or you can ask targeted questions: “I’d like to keep you in a steady supply of things that can lift your spirits. Is there anything you’re really leaning on these days, like shows or music or books?”

You also need “empathy cards” cards by Emily McDowell. Seriously. They even include a version of what you want to say but write off as glass-bowlish.

I should have said upfront, your caring is the best possible start. Now it’s just about tweaking the direction you take your concern.

Re: Bad Friend My best friend was dying of cancer. I asked her what she wanted to hear – did she want to hear about my normal days? Honestly, she didn’t know from day to day, but we worked out a means for her to tell me what her need was that conversation. She ended up losing her voice and communicating mainly by text. I spent a lot of time texting her jokes. We didn’t have to talk about what was going on, we just were being silly. Some of my best memories are those texts now that she’s gone. Neither of us had to deal with the reality unless she wanted to.

Anonymous

Thank you, and I’m sorry about your friend.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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