Women’s Friendships, in Sickness and in Health

A silver lining in the dark cloud of serious illness — your own or a loved one’s — is the help and caring offered by friends, and the way that help can deepen friendships.

Of the more than 80 women I interviewed recently for a new book about women’s friendships, many spoke with gratitude of friends who came through in such troubling times.

One told of a friend who flew from a distant city and stayed for a week while she recovered from surgery. Another described how friends coordinated through a website to drive her to chemo treatments, deliver meals and stay by her side when she wasn’t supposed to be alone. And many said how much it meant when friends kept calling or emailing or texting, even if they didn’t always get a response.

Friendship isn’t just the source of such comfort; it can also be a result. One woman recalled that when her mother became seriously ill, several women with whom she was friendly stepped up to help care for her mother. After her mother died, she realized that her relationships with these women had progressed from friendly to friends. Those friendships were a surprise, and an enduring gift.

Nearly everyone who told me how important friends were said that some who came through were not the ones they’d expected to. But the flip side of that coin can be among the harshest blows when illness strikes: the disappointment when friends you thought you could depend on let you down.

A woman whose husband had Parkinson’s said, “There were women friends — women I thought were my friends — who just disappeared.” Particularly painful was the reaction of a couple who had been among their closest friends. The wife’s visits became sporadic, and the husband’s stopped altogether. The wife explained, “My husband can’t handle seeing your husband that way.” The experience led the woman to contemplate the meaning of friendship. “If a friend isn’t there when you need her,” she mused, “what is a friend?”

Being there when you need her — or him — surely is part of what a friend is. Another part, especially for women, is being an ear. Talk plays a larger role in many women’s friendships than it does in many men’s, and when times are tough, talk can come into its own. Telling a friend what you’re going through can make you feel less isolated. But that coin has a flip side, too. A woman with breast cancer said she felt hurt by, and alienated from, friends whose questions seemed designed to ward off a similar fate. “Did you breast-feed?” and “Is there cancer in your family?” sounded like attempts to reassure themselves that “I’m different from you, so I’m safe” — and, therefore, “You’re alone in your cancer.”

Marcy Marxer, a Maryland folk musician, kept a list of less-than-helpful things people said when she told them she had cancer. Some were questions, like “What are your chances?” or, a more indirect way to ask the same thing, “What’s your stage?” Other comments gave advice: “Chemo? Don’t do that. That’s rat poison. I’ll send you a book on what to eat,” or, more specifically, “You should drink onion juice.” Still others were remarks clearly intended to encourage or reassure, but in fact did neither: “Stay positive” and “You’ll be fine.”

Even the most appreciated gestures can be complicated by the stresses that all human relations are heir to. One woman told me about helping out a friend who lived alone and was recovering from a serious medical condition. The friend was grateful for the help, but she was used to doing things her own way. She couldn’t hide her annoyance when the friend who came to help mistakenly used the “wrong” pots, served meals on plates she reserved for special occasions and prepared dishes so bland they were practically tasteless. Her frustration was matched by her friend’s, at being told to do differently things that she was exceedingly generous to be doing at all.

When I heard about the ways that generous gestures and well-intended words could backfire, I found myself worrying that I, too, might have inadvertently said or done the wrong thing.

And that explains why many of us get tongue-tied: It’s hard to know what will be welcome and what will annoy or cause pain. And the very thing that is right to say to one person in one context can be wrong to say to another, or to the same person in another context. When fear of saying or doing the wrong thing tempts you to say or do nothing, it may help to remember that just reaching out can mean the world.

And for those who feel hurt by what seems like a failure of friendship, it may help to remember that it might not be that at all. We tend to assume that our ways of showing caring are self-evidently right. But a whole host of cultural influences — ethnicity, geographic region, class and family styles — all affect how we show caring. A woman who told her good friend that her mother had been hospitalized was hurt that the friend never asked how her mother was doing. It gave the impression that she didn’t care. When the woman confessed her disappointment, her friend explained that her family had taught her it was rude to ask about anything personal. If people want to tell you, they’ll volunteer. Not asking was her way of being a considerate friend.

If you are the one in a position to need help, you might enlist someone to register on a website like Caring Bridge, where friends — both close and casual ones — can sign up for needed tasks. That way, when someone says “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” you can direct them to the website. For those who don’t live nearby, or can’t spare time for tasks, someone might set up a fund, to which anyone can contribute as much or as little as they wish, that can be used for things like hiring a house cleaning service or having meals delivered.

What can you do if friends you thought would be there have gone silent on you? Most of us are inclined to be hurt, and say nothing. It might be worth a try to make the call yourself. It’s possible their silence isn’t because they aren’t thinking about you, but that they’re hesitant to intrude. And asking about them is a way to say, “I’m still the friend I was before — and I hope you are too.”

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