What Kind of Friend Are You?

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Victoria Noe
Victoria Noe

Victoria Noe promised a dying friend that she’d write a book about people grieving their friends. That book became the Friend Grief series. Victoria will guest host our weekly #DWDchat on this topic this Thursday at 4:00pm PT/7:00pm ET. Join if you have time!

I’ve become obsessed of late with my prospect of my friends’ deaths—or more accurately, their final illness.

Over lunch, over drinks, over the phone, I’ve asked them a loaded question: “Would you tell me if you were sick?” I’ll tell you some of the answers in a moment. First, let me explain why I’m asking.

It’s not just that most of my friends are also baby boomers. It’s not just that we’ve all experienced the deaths of friends. It was the way two of my friends conducted themselves.

Carol’s recurrence of breast cancer made an already very private person even more reclusive. She wouldn’t allow any friends to see her, to visit her, in the hospital or at home. She would only talk to a select few on the phone. Why I was one of them, I still don’t know, as we weren’t the closest of friends. Maybe she knew I was willing to talk about anything and everything—except what she was going through.

Delle thrived on the friends around her. Through each occurrence of ovarian cancer, she seemed to gather strength not just from her faith, but from her friends. “Delle’s Elves”, we called ourselves, bringing meals, chauffeuring her daughter to after-school activities, filing, cleaning. Whatever she needed, we were there ready to do it. We couldn’t keep her alive, but we could help do something to make her final days bearable.

It should be no surprise that there were a lot of angry friends at Carol’s wake. We sat in the back of the funeral home parlor not talking much. The tears were not just for our loss but our inability to help her through her final days. Those who packed the church for Delle’s funeral were devastated, but not angry at her.

Both women had every right to live their lives as they wished. But for those of us left behind, well, the grief was different when we were shut out.

I didn’t start asking my friends “would you tell me if you were sick?” until years later. Maybe it’s just my natural tendency to be a control freak. Maybe it’s just my age. But the answers were important to me.

One of my friends has been very open about her health, and easily asks for—and gets—help from us. Two others—friends since the 60′s—said “probably not”. I expected that answer from one of them, but not the other. I was absolutely sure I wanted to know the truth from everyone, until I almost got bad news—twice.

I called a friend the night before he was to have major surgery. Everything was fine until he told me he’d asked his partner to put me on the short list of people to call if something went wrong. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. “Are you upset?” he asked. “Of course I’m upset,” I snapped when I finally found my voice. “You just told me I’m on the short list if something bad happens.” “Well,” he said, “I knew you’d be more pissed off if you weren’t.”

Not long after that, I was having lunch with an old boyfriend and asked him the question. “I’m not sick,” he insisted. I asked again if he would tell me. “Why wouldn’t I?” By then, I’d stopped making assumptions about what my friends would do, but I was happy about his answer.

Maybe a year and half later, we were having lunch again, and there was a pause in the conversation. He looked at me hesitantly. “I had chest pains three days in a row.”

We’ll skip over the part where I wanted to yell at him for waiting three days to go to the emergency room. This was exactly the kind of thing I’d asked for: keep me in the loop, let me know if you’re having a health crisis. But now, faced with it—and the knowledge that his father had died of heart problems—was something very different. I struggled to not burst into tears, and listened to his explanation of what turned out to be something quite benign.

I’ve known both of my friends long enough to know that though they were willing to keep me informed, neither one wanted to upset me. And that is part of the conundrum.

Friends are frequently left out during a person’s final illness. The family comes first, and may even decide to keep friends away from their dying relative. I saw a lot of that in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. But I’m not talking about legalities here.

Everyone should have the right to make their own decisions, especially when it comes to end of life issues. Carol and Delle both handled their final illness the way each thought was best. I’m pretty sure part of Carol’s reluctance to be seen was so she could avoid getting “the look”—the way people look at you when you’re really sick, when you’re dying. The person dying winds up being a caregiver for those around them. Delle probably comforted more people than comforted her, until she no longer had the strength to do that.

I wonder sometimes what they would think of the other question I’ve asked the ones who were split on whether they’d share the news of their final illness with their friends. Because this question generated a “yes” from everyone: “Would you want to know if your friend was dying?”

They all said yes. Ironic? Maybe. And they all gave the same reason: “So I could help them.”

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? To help your friend when they need the comfort of those who know them best. Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to help them anyway you could? Of course you would.

The question for you is, would you let them do the same for you?

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