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Keeping Adult Friendships While Children Are in Treatment

It is important for parents to maintain their adult friendships when their child is fighting cancer. Staying close to friends is important for many reasons. Friends can be a source of help, emotional support, or distraction to relieve stress.

During serious illness, all relationships undergo changes and challenges. Friendships are no exception. Distance, lack of time, and feeling like friends don’t understand can make it hard for parents to stay connected with friends. But, when children are fighting cancer, parents need adult friendships.

Let friends know they are important

Friends may assume the last thing parents with a sick child want are visitors and phone calls. But that may be exactly what parents need. Childhood cancer is overwhelming, and friends may not know what to say or do. Even close friends may pull away. Letting friends know that they are important doesn’t have to take much time or effort. It may seem simple, but proactively telling friends that they are valued can open communication.  

Conversation starters – finding the words to reach out

Parents say friendships play an important role in making it through the pediatric cancer journey.

Parents say friendships play an important role in making it through the pediatric cancer journey.

Staying close with limited time and energy

Most parents feel like they don’t have enough time for friends even before their child is diagnosed with cancer. Cancer presents even more time demands: appointments, medical care, home and work responsibilities, keeping track of information, and making time for family. Stress and worry can also make it hard to have the energy to reach out.

But most parents say that friendships play an important role in making it through the pediatric cancer journey. Each person connects with friends in different ways, but here are some things parents have found helpful.

  • Call friends on the phone. Having a conversation by phone is more personal than emails or texts. Hearing a friend’s voice provides an important emotional connection, especially when away from home.
  • Ask for help. Friends want to help but often don’t know how. Let them know specific ways they can help. This helps them feel needed and involved.
  • Update groups of friends using websites or social media. Sites like CaringBridge and other forms of social media allow parents to provide updates to a number of friends and family members at once. Parents may even designate a friend or relative to be in charge of posts.
  • Prioritize time with close friends. When time is limited, it can help to focus on meaningful interactions with one or two trusted people that will be there through ups and downs.
  • Meet small groups of friends. Seeing two or more friends together—perhaps for coffee or lunch on a semi-regular basis—can keep connections strong when finding one-on-one time is just too hard. This can also help take the pressure off having to keep up conversation when feeling tired or worried.
  • Invite friends to go along on errands. Many parents feel guilty when they take time away from their child to be with friends. Or, there is just too much to do. Friends, especially close friends, are happy to just spend time together.

Acknowledge awkwardness.

“It’s sometimes hard for me to know what to say to people. I’m sure it can be hard for my friends to talk to me too.”

Reach out.

“Hey, I wanted to give you a ring – it’s good to hear your voice.”

Ask for specific help.

“This is a hard time for my family. If you could help with picking the kids up from school a few times a week, it would mean a lot.”

Give appreciation.

“I know I haven’t been around as much, but just know that your friendship means the world to me.”

Say thanks.

“Thank you for dropping off dinner last night. That was a big help to our family.”

When friends don't know how to help

Most people have no idea what it’s like to have a child with cancer. When a child is diagnosed with cancer, every friend reacts differently. Some friends go above and beyond with their support. Others pull back. Some friends may try to act like nothing has changed. Others may promise a lot of help but don’t come through. Parents can be disappointed when friends don’t offer the help and support expected.

Common reasons why friends may not meet parents’ expectations include:

  • Feeling unsure of what to say or do
  • Believing families want to be left alone or not wanting to intrude
  • Thinking that parents will ask for help if something is needed
  • Getting caught up in their own responsibilities keeps friends from following through

Positive strategies for dealing with disappointment

It is natural for parents to feel let down, especially if a close friend does not give the support needed. Disappointment can often lead to anger and resentment, especially when parents are already feeling vulnerable. But, there are some ways that parents can cope in a more positive way.

  • Consider the situation from another perspective. Take a step back. It’s very unlikely that a friend would be intentionally hurtful. Disappointment may be less about the friend’s behavior. It may be that as a parent of a child with cancer, emotions are raw, making it harder to be objective.
  • Ask for specific help. People often don’t know what to do or how to help. Friends may be waiting to be asked, while parents are waiting on friends to offer. Let friends know what is needed in a clear way.
  • Give friends a chance to help in different ways. People have different strengths and weaknesses. If a friend doesn’t follow through, it may be that they would have been more comfortable doing something else.
  • Remember to be a friend. Parents should be able to count on friends for support when their child is facing cancer. But it is important to take an interest in what is going on in friends’ lives too. Although others’ concerns may seem trivial compared to cancer, mutual care and support sustains friendships over time.
  • Give grace. Friends are going to disappoint. They are going to say and do the wrong thing. Friends give one another space to make mistakes and learn from them.

Conversation starters

  • “I haven’t heard back from you in a while. Is that because you may feel like it’s hard to know what to say? That’s probably how I’d feel in your position.”
  • “You haven’t stopped by lately. Is that because you’ve been really busy with work? I know you have a lot on your plate too.”
  • “I feel like things were a little tense when we talked the other day. I know you weren’t trying to hurt my feelings, and I was feeling stressed. Can we hit reset?”
  • “Hey, I know you won’t be able to come to the hospital. I understand. But do you think you could pick up our mail and check on the house for us for the next few days?”

Managing hurtful comments

Despite wanting to help, friends are often unsure of what to say or do. Sometimes, friends may even avoid interactions because cancer makes them uncomfortable. Other times, friends make comments that parents find hurtful or inconsiderate.

Open, honest communication is important for all relationships. Friendships are no exception. There are some ways that parents can cope when friends say something hurtful:

  • Take some time before responding. When a friend makes hurtful comments, it can be helpful to address the issue directly. But, other times, it might be better to let it go. Waiting before responding provides a clearer perspective and helps prevent saying something that could put more stress on the friendship.
  • Consider what was actually meant. Friends usually mean well. Most people have never been close to someone whose child has cancer. Just like families have to learn a new language of cancer, friends have to learn a new language of support. It can sometimes help to explain to friends specific things that are sensitive topics.
  • Acknowledge good intentions. It’s important to be clear with friends about what is or isn’t helpful. But before giving feedback, let friends know that their concern and willingness to help are appreciated.
  • Explain that one of the best ways to help is to just listen. When a friend is hurting, people want to help fix things. Inconsiderate comments may result from friends simply not knowing what to say or do. Friends may need to be told that what parents really need is someone to listen. Remind friends that it isn’t their responsibility to solve problems; just being there is important.

Looking for the positive in friendships

Even small disappointments can hurt a lot when parents are caring for a sick child. Accepting that different friendships play different roles can help prevent unrealistic expectations. Past friendships often provide comfort, familiarity, and connection to life outside of cancer. But new friendships that develop during the cancer journey are also important to provide support that only comes from personal experience. Focus on the friendships and relationships that matter most, including friends and family members. Although some friendships may not be what they were, parents can also look forward to new friends during the pediatric cancer journey – during treatment, in support groups, and completely unexpected places.

Reviewed: June 2018