How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick

Case histories to learn from and live by

When Your Best Isn't Good Enough

Dealing with disappointment.

What happens when you feel you’ve given your all to a sick friend and your all is not enough? Worse yet, what if you have no idea that you’ve disappointed her?

I just got this email from Marlene about Tessa (names have been changed):

Tessa and I have been friends since the 60s. We traveled together, she stayed with us for a month when we lived in South America, she came to L.A. to hang out with me when she was depressed.

From my perspective our friendship was close and comfortable so you can imagine how shocked I was when out of the blue she sent me a horrifically nasty email saying that she’d been angry with me for more than five years – ever since she had surgery and chemo for lung cancer. She accused me of being unsympathetic and unkind throughout the period of her illness yet nothing about my behavior, even as she reported it, seemed offensive.

Given the fact that Tessa and I didn’t live in the same country and I couldn’t afford to fly thousands of miles to visit her in person, I thought I’d come through as best I could by calling and emailing her often. And she had never seemed discontent with any of our interactions until now. I just didn’t get it.

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Tessa’s sudden accusation made no sense to Marlene, not just because of its substance but because of how belatedly Tessa had registered her complaint. Still, Tessa insisted that they “clear the air” before their friendship could go on.

Marlene thought hard and long about how to reply. She consulted several of her and Tessa’s mutual friends and talked the situation through with her grown son. In the end, she realized that the friendship could not be saved because she, Marlene, had lost faith in Tessa. The fact that a supposed friend had been holding a grudge all this time while appearing to relate to her normally seemed to Marlene inherently dishonest, if not irrational.

She wrote Tessa a note.

I said we’d had a good run and I had some lovely memories of our years together but there was no future for us as friends. I’m getting on in years and I have so much I want to do in this life and I don’t want to be pulled down by people who are critical, unreliable, and unpredictable.

None of us has access to Tessa and her side of the story but even with the facts as Marlene presents them, the point I take away from this story is the point I seem to take away from almost every story about friendship and illness. Unless your reactions to one another are honest and forthright from the start, unless you clarify your expectations of one another and immediately convey your disappointment, resentment is sure to build and sickness will be compounded by anger.

Let me know if you’ve ever been disappointed by a friend in a similar situation and what you did about it.

Until then, here’s to good health and friendship.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine and past president of The Authors Guild, is an award-winning journalist, speaker, activist, and author of ten books.

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