The Silent Friend

A few weeks ago, my husband and I got a phone call that no parent ever wants to get. Our oldest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This post is not about him. There isn’t much to write because we don’t know very much. It is a complicated situation, as these things usually are. The tumor’s location and my son’s age dictate that we must wait to get a biopsy and, in the meantime, carefully watch its growth. Without knowing what type of tumor it is, treatment is impossible. We are reassured by his doctors that the tumor is slow-growing and we have every reason to think it is treatable. And so we wait.

In the days following my son’s diagnosis, I reached out to close friends and family. Partly out of necessity (somebody needed to watch our younger son while we made repeated trips to the hospital for follow-up) and partly because I was floundering emotionally and needed support. As I shared the news, I was amazed at the  range of reactions: complete anguish to absolute silence. Having never been in a situation like this, I didn’t know what to expect of others or myself and often found myself babbling, reassuring me as much as the the other person that, “we are fine.” I was overwhelmed and so grateful for the outpouring of support. Many people were seemingly boundless in their generosity and willingness to help. I was humbled.

(Yes, here it comes – ) But, there were many people I didn’t hear from. I was so buoyed by the support from others that I didn’t give it much thought initially but as days turned to weeks and I still hadn’t heard from some very important people in my life, I had to wonder, “Really?!?! I send an email telling you my son has a brain tumor and your response is to delete it from your inbox and move on with your day? Even after I send another email and message you on Facebook?? Really!?!?”  I have heard the phrase, “It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are”. Mere acquaintances sent heartfelt notes of encouragement, dear friends offered warm hugs and shoulders for my tears. Yet, others said nothing and offered nothing.   Indeed, it’s times like these…

Then I came across an essay by Margaret Feinburg, “The Three Worst Things You Can Say To Someone Battling Cancer or Any Kind of Adversity…”   (I’ll save you the trouble: 1-  I’ll Do Anything To Help; 2- Been there, done that; and 3- Silence). Yep. Check, check and a big fat check. Amen, sister. There it was, someone else validating the dark side of sharing bad news. Yet, something bugged me about this list. I realized I had said the first two things to other people in the past.  Even though I cringe to think that words I spoke may have been insensitive or even hurtful, at least I said something. But the third reaction, silence, is just plain callous.

Then I thought of the reactions from my friends and family. I heard the first two phrases many times but I found I was not actually bothered by them. Most people are not purposely going around saying hurtful things to people going through a tough time. I like to think they are saying those phrases because they believe them to be true or maybe they don’t know what else to say.  Surely, they don’t intend to hurt or be insensitive. I know when someone says they would do “anything” to help they don’t mean it. They are not going to pay our medical bills. They are not going to entertain my son for four hours while we wait in the doctor’s office. “Been there, done that” is a poorly worded attempt to connect over a common experience. Even if it usually is a misperceived commonality, it’s still an attempt to connect.

Some of the hardest experiences in life are moments we must face and endure alone.  It is through meaningless phrases like, “I’ll do anything to help,” that we are trying to acknowledge the loneliness of hardship. I can easily forgive well-intentioned, if mostly empty, offers of support but I can not forgive silence, can I?

Then I heard from a friend who had remained silent in the wake of my news. She apologized for not calling sooner but she had just decided to leave her husband and was trying to navigate the initial stages of separation. She simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to talk to me. Soon thereafter, another silent friend emailed me and said she simply didn’t know what to say and so said nothing. Likewise, our son’s situation can evoke very real fears for other people. One friend told me she didn’t sleep at all the night she received my email because she was petrified something was wrong with her own child.

It was then that I realized two things: 1) a friend’s expression (or lack thereof) of support likely has very little, if anything, to do with me and everything to do with their own emotions or circumstances; and 2) lots and lots and lots of people are overcome with their own life whether it’s a million little things weighing them down or a couple of emotional catastrophes. The burden of my news might be too much for them to deal with at that time.

In reality, it’s not for me to decide if a friend’s silence is a legitimate reaction to bad news. Silence is a legitimate choice for them. It was easy for me to sit in judgment and say that if I could get up every morning and get my kids to school and plan Halloween parties while my son has a brain tumor, someone else should be able to send me a three sentence email. But each person’s ability to cope with their life circumstances ebbs and flows, changes and morphs, depending on all kinds of things I simply know nothing about. Sharing our devastating news, though it is our devastating news and our story to live, impacts those I tell, too. Even silence is okay.

“It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are.” I’m not so sure about that. Friendship spans greater lengths of time than a single life-event. Someone may not be there for me now, but maybe next week or next year or when they live closer or after they change jobs or…or…or…the permutations of life circumstances are infinite. I cannot make or break a friendship on one life event. My list of friends is intact, growing even.  I have deep gratitude for the people in my life – even the silent ones.

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7 thoughts on “The Silent Friend

  1. Hi Jenn. Thanks again for being so open and honest with the thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing. I’ll be honest and say that I was worried when I first started reading the post. But I’m so happy that I finished reading and that you came to understand why some people were silent. From my experience, the hardest thing to hear was “He’s going to be fine.”. Well, unless you are a medical professional specialized in what my child is fighting, you don’t know if he will be fine. So don’t say that. And the hardest thing to deal with was people that needed emotional support to deal with the situation. For me, as the caregiver, I didn’t have anything to give others, I needed all the support for myself. You are going to continue to learn so much from this experience. Even after everything that I have gone through, I still struggle at times to know what is the right thing to say to people when they are dealing with adversity. Let’s continue to learn from our life experiences and not judge others.

    • Thanks, Gigi. Every person’s experience is unique and every friendship is different. There are no rules or lists that make it easier to be on one side or the other of the news of hardship. Yes…continuing to learn and trying to let go of judgement.

  2. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. It is so easy in times of heartache to project those hurt and angry feelings onto others, especially those we crave support from. You are absolutely right in saying that how people react has very little to do with us (as the news-giver) and everything to do with their own lives and emotional standing. I have been that friend, who couldn’t handle my close friend’s heartache so I ran from it, and I can promise you those silent friends love you and your son and your family so much that they can’t bear to take on that burden. If they didn’t care, it would be easy to conceptualize this situation.

    I am so sorry to hear about your son’s condition. I don’t know you, but your family is in my thoughts. I wish you peace and comfort during this difficult time.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s hard to explain but we take a great deal of comfort in hearing supportive words, even from people we don’t know. Thank you for reading.

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