When Grief or Illness Ends a Friendship. Does It Have to Happen?

By:  Lynn Acquafondata

One of the worst aspects of facing a terminal illness or coping with daily life following the death of a loved one can be losing friendships as a result. 

I believe that if I were to fall seriously ill or a loved one were to die, my friends would stand beside me and support me. I found this isn’t always the case in the years I spent serving as a hospice chaplain. 

Too often the heart-wrenching loss of friends or family members who people thought they could count on, came alongside the larger grief of the death of a loved or one’s own diagnosis with a terminal illness. People who had once been a regular part of life, stop visiting and calling. Others visited, but avoided all mention of illness or death, and changed the subject if it did come up.

I remember one man who battled ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He was confined to a wheelchair and used a breathing device. He was scared and often lonely. Visits by the family members and the friends who stayed in touch meant a tremendous amount to him. 

As he became sicker, fewer and fewer people paid him a visit or called him. He had many times of anger and despair longing for connection with family and friends. In his darkest moments their absence haunted him. He wondered what could be wrong with him that these people had walked away in his greatest time of need. 

For this man and for the many people like him, I share some strategies to guide friends. I will share strategies for those who are terminally ill or grieving the death of a loved one to cope with absent friends in my article, “Coping Effectively When Friends Walk Away in Your Time of Need” to be posted next week. 

For friends: How to prevent unintentionally adding to the burden of a friend or family’s member’s illness or death of a loved one. 

1) Manage your own discomfort and anxiety. Facing another person’s illness or bereavement can stir up uncomfortable feelings, even sometimes intense personal fears that get in the way of being supportive. A friend’s loss may remind you of a difficult death in your own past, or it might trigger your deepest fears for yourself or those you love. 

This is painful, but it is also normal. It happens to all of us when we face these situations, even trained professionals. I can do the work I do because I acknowledge and mange my own fears. 

  • Begin by breathing deeply. 
  • Remind yourself these feelings of discomfort are part of being human. 
  • Call another friend for support before and after your visit. 
  • Pray. 
  • Go to a counseling session or two to work through your own anxiety issues.  

2) Acknowledge life and death. Pushing it away won’t make it go away. Life is full of beauty, tragedy and much in between. Sometimes people don’t want to see the pain of life because it makes it too real, too frightening.  

Open up with the person you are visiting and share your own discomfort and fears. You do not need to protect a terminally ill person from these thoughts. Believe me, they are already thinking about these things, and often find these conversation to be a relief. Sharing your discomfort will allow your friend to feel understood and less alone.

3) Know your limits, but try gently pushing them. 

  • Start by making a phone call. 
  • If you visit, ask someone to go along with you for support, or make sure a friend will be available after your visit so you can call and debrief with someone else.
  • Set a time limit for the visit. When people are ill or grieving shorter visits of 15 minutes to 30 minutes are often better anyhow. 

4) Visiting is a way to care of yourself too. Coming face to face with your own mortality allows you to live a more meaningful life. When you let yourself know in your gut that you too will die someday and that those you love will die someday, you can begin to prioritize the parts of your life that matter the most and to let go of things that are less important or even petty.