A good friend of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer. Her prognosis is excellent, but she has had to go through some surgeries, radiation and lastly chemo. The chemo treatments wipe her out for about 12 days and then she returns to being her normal pre-chemo self, albeit with extra exhaustion. Of course, emotionally she has been on a roller coaster ride as well: fear, loss, embarrassment (the whole experience of being suddenly bald and having to figure out how to look presentable), isolation, loneliness and days, weeks and even months of pervasive sadness.
An opportunity arose where a group of friends who have been close to my friend for decades were planning a weekend retreat. After she knew she’d be okay to join them she texted that she wanted in! She was so looking forward to a few days to hang out, laugh and enjoy the old and dear friendships.
She was stunned when her friends rejected her request to be included in the retreat since she had gone with this group several times in recent years. She knew something was up when it took over 48 hours for there to be any kind of a reply.
In her texts to her friends, she stressed that she was fine, was still going to work regularly, was able to do stairs, was driving and basically was reasonably healthy, other than knowing she would probably need to take a few extra naps.
My friend shared with them that she had been very lonely and how meaningful it would be to have a chance to gather with them. She realized how much she longed for connection and fun after so many months of fear and pain and all the other struggles that go along with dealing with cancer recovery. She knew that these retreats were not anything too involved: people sharing their lives over some good food. She was confident adding her back into the list of attendees would not have caused any significant stress on the group.
She was wrong. Two days after she sent out her first request, she got a cursory text back that basically said they felt it would not be a good idea for her to come. There was no further explanation given.
To say my friend was hurt is an understatement! She was devastated. She felt so rejected by people I thought were genuine friends. As we talked it became clear that there are categories of relationships where you feel safe, appreciated and cared for, especially in those times when you are facing a life crisis of some sort. Sometimes you don’t even know that people you consider close, caring friends would fall under the category of fair-weather friends. These are the people who like to have your around when things are lighthearted, fun, and relaxing.
My friend thought that maybe they were worried that they would have to hear talk about her cancer, which she definitely would not do, or that they felt it would’ve been a downer to have her around, feeling like cancer is somehow contagious. No matter what, it obviously made them uncomfortable to include her in what would have been a very helpful and healing time away for her. She said she knew there was no intention to be so hurtful and there was probably no realization of the deep and painful impact their decision was having on her.
Sometimes people don’t realize how wounding they have been to another person. I suspect we all have wounded other people unintentionally and maybe never knew that we had hurt them. Maybe that’s just the way it is for us as human beings trying to make it in the world.
She shared that another friend thought maybe they were being protective of her, worried that being out in the world like that might be dangerous for her even though her medical team enthusiastically encouraged her to go because it would be so good for her mental health and no real risk to her physically.
My friend found that there was a small group of people who rose to the surface in terms of being consistently and predictably loyal, caring, and faithful friends who want to walk beside her during this challenging time in her life. She now contrasts them with the so-called “friends” who now fit in the category of fair-weather friends. For her right now what they took away was just too significant, too important to be able to put the pain aside in order to maintain even a superficial friendship. I told her she deserved to fully claim what this has meant and done to her.
I guess out of all of this I have learned to treasure even more my genuine friends. I also think I probably am now more cynical about friendships that haven’t been tested. We live in times where there is a certain amount of self-centeredness and selfishness and only wanting to do what is enjoyable. Maybe for each of us it is worth thinking about the degrees to which we are genuine friends with those we care about or are we more fair-weather friends. Deciding to step up when someone you care about is going through something difficult can be a very important life decision.
When you have friends who are struggling like my friend was, what kind of response do you make? Do you look the other way, do you offer superficial support like a card or maybe a Facebook or text message saying you are thinking of them (which are all very kind gestures)? Or do you jump in and actually do the kinds of things that provide a real sense of connection: do you arrange for a visit when it’s convenient for that person, do you put together a personalized care package, do you bring a home-cooked meal, do you do regular even daily check ins to say that you are available and that you want updates on their life, do you offer to take them on doctor’s appointments?
I think it can be helpful albeit painful to consider where on the continuum our friendships fall, from genuine, caring friendships through thick and thin to less loyal and caring to being there only for the good times. It becomes an opportunity to treasure even more of those friendships with those who are loyal, faithful friends.
Invitation for Reflection
- Have you ever experienced a time when a friend that you thought would genuinely be there for you in difficult times backed away, who seemed uncomfortable being around you or did nothing to help you in your time of need? If so, how did you cope with that?
- To what extent do you consider yourself a genuine friend to those you care for? Do you ever feel pulled to step back when they are going through something difficult because it means you have to extend yourself in caring for them? If so, would you like to change that and move up the continuum to deepen your friendships with others are?
- To what extent are you prepared for being rejected, betrayed or let down by people you thought were your genuine friends? Which friends are you confident will be there for you if you need them to walk beside you through some kind of life crisis?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute