By Adriana Lewin, LPC
Many of us have been experienced the very sudden and unexpected silence from a friend or a lover. But did you know that being "ghosted" is a phenomenon that most every parent with a child with pediatric cancer has expressed experiencing?
It is probably one of the most confusing side effects of pediatric cancer. A pediatric cancer family is going through one of the most difficult things any parent will have to endure, and need their village, their friends, and their family to surround them in love and support. So why is it that most families experience the loss of so many relationships (family and friends), so suddenly, during the most traumatic time in their lives?
Not only are pediatric cancer families grieving a very real loss of normalcy and a loss of the most basic necessity: security, but they are also needlessly enduring the absence and loss of much needed friendships. And those relationships unfortunately dissolve while we cope with cancer.
Our family and friends are our support system.
Our family and friends are our link to normalcy.
We need our family and friends more now than ever!
God bless those family and friends we have in our circle who step up and support us, not only emotionally, but mentally, physically and spiritually as well. And God bless those acquaintances who sought to meet us in our suffering and support us in any way possible: nurses, doctors and people we just happen to know less intimately whose support quickly moved them up the ranks into our circle next to our nearest and dearest people.
So why do friends disappear?
Where once you had the ability to relate to your friends, talk about the mundane things, or complain about your day to day challenges, they were all fairly relatable topics of conversation. Sure, you can understand why your best friend is struggling with their child's behavioral issues or why a spouse is about to drive them to the brink of insanity, because you can relate to those types of struggles. You might even chime in with your own struggles to show that you can empathize and relate.
When a family first learns of their child’s cancer diagnosis, many pediatric cancer parents are in “crisis mode” and they are too overwhelmed to listen to their friends’ normal banter about their hardest struggles, which we once shared in common with them. And there, in the moment of trying to relate and support and feel supported, evolves an awkward interaction between two friends who once understood each other and supported each other. And the awkwardness is felt by both parties, creating a distance between that relationship.
2. Fear of saying the wrong thing or making us cry.
Not many people know how to respond when we vent about our struggle with pediatric cancer, because they don't understand the range of emotions which we feel. So they are unsure on what to say. And frankly, most people are not comfortable with seeing or hearing someone cry. They don't want to bring up the topic that we need to talk about the most because they are afraid that THEY may be the one to make us cry. Much like when someone experiences a loss where people are afraid to ask about the deceased or mention their name when talking about it is sometimes what you need. We just need someone to acknowledge and give us the option to talk about it, if we want. Sometimes, what we are going though is too much to discuss with anyone and sometimes, you are ready to share. But asking us is ok, and appropriate. And if they ask us, and we do start to cry, they aren't sure on how to respond or they fall back on the typical platitudes: "Don't cry. It's going to be ok. Have faith." But that fear of not knowing what to say or how to respond if they do make us cry, paralyzes them. They get afraid to call. They just don't have the words to say.
If this is the reason why you don't call a cancer family, it's okay and perfectly appropriate to say. "I am so sorry. I have been afraid to call because I can't imagine what you are going through. I don't know what to say. I know nothing I say will make this situation better for you. But I wanted to let you know that I am here, and we care and have you in our prayers, everyday. And if it's okay, I would like to reach out and ask you how YOU are doing or how your child is doing." Or some variation of that.
3. Fear of disruption
I can't even tell you how many times I have heard family and friends tell me, "I don't call you because I know you are probably on the phone all day long, updating everyone. I just don't want to bother you and disrupt you.
Can I just be very honest for a minute? I am literally puzzled by this, because I receive almost NO phone calls. I can count on my hand the amount of people who call me in a month to ask me how I am, or how my child is doing or how they can support us during our struggle. I am not asking for everyone to call, but if you are genuinely interested in knowing what is going on, my phone line is clear and open. Getting a call shows me that you thought of our family enough to care to ask personally. And the support doesn't end there. I have text messaging and emails. And Facebook and Instagram. Or snail mail. I mean, there are several ways to communicate with a pediatric cancer family to show them that you are still there.
Please extend us some grace if we don't respond immediately. We may be in the middle of clinic appointments or managing some side effects from chemotherapy, or just flat out just not in the mood to talk at all, but I promise, seeing your effort does not go unnoticed. You know what else doesn't go unnoticed? When we are ghosted. Yep, I said it. And now back away slowly.....ha!
4. Social Media
I honestly think many people rely on social media for updates and they feel that since they "follow" the updates through social media, that they know what's going on and we would have nothing else to share outside of social media. That might be true for some, but I know most pediatric cancer families don't share most information on social media. They share snapshots. The whole picture would require a novel, and social media is not the platform for that. So we know people keep up with our posts, but it would be better if people would reach out to us personally, especially if you are in our inner circle.
So how do we salvage the relationship before it goes Code Blue?
If you have a family member, a friend or a loved one who is going through pediatric cancer, take a second and ask yourself "Have I leaned in to offer support or have I given the family some well intentioned "space"?". If the latter, then pinpoint your reason for shying away from reaching out to your friend/loved one, and gather the courage and call, text message, email or any other means of communication. Your effort means the world to us.
If you are a parent, caretaker or child going through pediatric cancer, if the relationship means that much to you, then make the effort and reach out as well. It seems silly that you would be the one to put forth the first step when it should be a time that you are being comforted and offered support. But if you don't want to lose the friendship, remember, a relationship is a two way street and maybe your person needs a little encouragement that you are safe to approach, and they can see that you are still there and you still need that friendship to remain normal while the rest of your world gets flipped upside down. And show them that you still have time for communication.
If you feel so hurt by someone who ghosted you during your time of need, you can decide to remain hurt without understanding why they didn't support you when you needed them the most. OR you can choose to forgive, and give them the benefit of the doubt, and forgive. Decide if the friendship can be salvaged, and if there is any glimmer of hope, tell that friend how hurt you were by their absence. Either way, you will find healing and closure if you choose not to keep that friendship in your inner circle and forgive.