A Friend In Need: Cancer And The Vanishing Friends

A short paragraph from the essay “Living With Cancer: Alone And Ghosted” by Susan Gubar (NYT August 6th), made me think about expectations from friends:

“I depend on a circle of wonderful friends to whom I am enormously grateful. Quite a few gratify me with their company or by going on urgent errands; however, I have been shocked by several who have simply vanished. Perhaps my needs seem too pressing or never ending. Maybe these people feel inadequate, frightened or taken up with their own affairs. As troubles mount, will supporters dwindle?”

Gubar’s experience with her friends is similar to mine. When my husband became ill, many friends phoned to see how we were and offered to help. They came to visit, and thought of creative ways to make our life more comfortable. For example, some colleagues from the university took him to sit by the sea. My husband enjoyed it all: being an introvert, he wasn’t used to being the center of attention, and often said that he was thankful that cancer made it possible for him to realize that he was loved by his friends.

Still, we too were “shocked” by friends who “simply vanished.” Gubar is not sure why, but she attempts to explain their behavior by focusing on her needs and their problems. I too tried not to judge and to be sensitive to their difficulties. Still at the time, and for a long time after my husband’s death, I resented their betrayal and felt hurt.

In the last sentence Gubar expresses her fear that her friends will disappear completely once she really needs them. In a way, we were spared, my husband’s illness was short, and all he needed from his friends was human warmth. Yet today as cancer becomes a chronic illness patients’ needs are greater and so is the strain on family members and friends.

An old friend, who will be celebrating her 99th birthday this month, told me that following an especially difficult operation, she vowed not to complain since, from experience, she knew that people shy away from those who do. For the same reason she didn’t weep in public after her husband passed away.

Those self-prescribed etiquettes are important, and the sick and the bereaved often have to make a special effort to conduct themselves in a way which makes it easier for others to care for them. But what about the codes of civility of the  vanishing friends, why don’t they make a conscientious effort to grow up?

Still there is something much stronger than etiquettes, although the Bible doesn’t specifically instruct us to visit the ill and console the bereaved,  this issue was addressed in the oral tradition and became a Mitzva. Perhaps in the days of the Bible members of the community  didn’t go to visit the sick for fear of contagion. The natural instinct of self preservation is human, but while some are paralyzed by it, most of us overcome irrational fears with logic and compassion..

Susan Gubar, is grateful to her good  friends who help her, but as she chooses to name her essay “Living With Cancer: Alone And Ghosted” it is a good time to remind those who stay away because they find it too difficult to be present, that life is much harder for cancer patients.

About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move O.," In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. I am also an active member of Women Wage Peace and believe that women can succeed where men have failed.
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