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.