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Unable to be Supportive

Unable to be Supportive


Dear Rachel,

My best friend has recently been diagnosed with cancer. My mother died of the very same type two years ago. I want to be there for her, but I am so scared to go through all this pain and suffering again. I feel like a deer caught in the headlights. As much as I love her, I feel like I have to pull back from her now. But I feel so guilty.  What should I do?"

Baltimore, MD

Dear Trapped,

I am so sorry to hear of your recent loss and the news of your friend’s diagnosis. This must be a very hard time for you. First and foremost, I want to send a blessing to your friend for a complete and speedy recovery.

Secondly, I want to commend you for your ability to look honestly at this matter and seek guidance. Sometimes when we have a very difficult situation arise in our lives, our tendency can be to pull back completely without even thinking about what or why we are doing it. But you are very clear about where you are at and how you are feeling, and that is a wonderful and necessary first step to any healing process. It sounds to me, that emotionally, you are where you need to be.

It takes time to heal from a loss as profound as the one you have experienced. In fact, after the death of a parent there are parts of us that never heal completely - they remain scarred and vulnerable. This vulnerability can help to protect us emotionally and at its best, it can help shape us into more sensitive, compassionate and aware people.

It is possible that your pain and vulnerability is too fresh and too raw to be of active service to a friend in need. It may be too much to bear emotionally. You may simply not be ready to open yourself up to that kind of ache and exposure just yet.

It is also possible that through your loss and grief you have gleaned some invaluable coping tools. Perhaps you have tapped into some internal strength and understanding about the preciousness of life and the need to fight for it. Perhaps your mother’s death, and your part in that process, has given you an ability to offer support and compassion that others may not be able to.

You are the only one who knows what you can and can’t handle. Speaking with a trained therapist or grieving counselor could be of great value in helping you figure that out. And, bear in mind that your involvement with your friend’s life and recovery doesn’t have to be all or none. You have the ability to offer help and support in whatever way that you are able to give it. Establishing boundaries for your emotional well being will be a very important piece of this equation, and I believe a trained professional can help guide you through the process.

Whatever level of involvement you choose, I urge you to protect yourself. Make sure that you are sleeping and eating properly. Make sure that you have support people in place for you to communicate with. And make sure that your friend knows that whether you are physically by her side or not, she is in your mind and your heart and your prayers.

There are many ways to communicate love and devotion without physically being present; arranging meals for her and her family, arranging rides to and from the hospital, sending cards and gifts, keeping up with mail and housework while she is away, organizing others to pray on her behalf, giving tzedakah (charity) and increasing in good deed in her honor. You know your friend and you know what she needs.

We are approaching the festival of Chanukah. The mitzvah of Chanukah is to light the menorah each night for eight days. We start with a little light, one candle the first night, and we slowly add more to it. Our Sages teach us, that a little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness. We are “day workers” - our job is not to battle the darkness, but rather to increase in light.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for you. Your relationship with your friend does not need to involve “battling darkness” - you can also choose to simply increase in “light.” You can add an act of kindness towards her in your daily routine and bring light to her in the way that only you can. When we use the light of the “shamash” (the helper candle) to light the other candles, the shamash is not depleted, the strength of its flame has not been diminished, it is just shared and reinforced.

I wish you strength and clarity to find your place in your friend’s life and good health for you all.


“Dear Rachel” is a biweekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sarah Zadok.

Sarah Zadok is a childbirth educator, doula and freelance writer. She lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, with her husband and four children.

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Lisa Providence, RI January 22, 2011

Unable to be Supportive You're in a very stressful situation, but real friends don't turn their backs on each other. You can feel like you have to "run away", but in reality, you can't. Your friend needs your love and support. Reply

Stella Obscura via June 29, 2008

Some parts of this answer really surprise me. I eagerly opened this, expecting a certain kind of JEWISH response... and what I see is New-Agey "take care of YOU" and "it might be TOO MUCH."

Too much? Which friend is SICK, fighting for her life, not "trapped in the headlights?"

And no, sending a nice donation to some foundation, from a distance, wearing pink, is NOT the same as BEING HER REAL-LIFE FRIEND.

As a stage-IV breast cancer patient, I have to call "Feh!" on this touchy-feely "oh, don't put yourself out" philosophy. I am fighting for my life virtually ALONE because people came up with every excuse, and then some, to abandon me. Suddenly it was not enough to fight the cancer - I had to make a "case" for myself with old friends.

Abandoning a friend who's fighting cancer HURTS. It is discouraging. Please think again, and SHOW UP while she is alive.

It should not take a rabbi to say this: YOUR FRIEND IS ALIVE. Please do not abandon her to face this alone Reply

SassySarahRuth December 31, 2006

unresolved-Guilt vs Teshuvah Dear mimi,

Thank you for your comment. The friends that pulled back were obviously not real friends, but only nice acquaintances. B"H, I also had many new supportive friends, that became so supportive they became like family. My opinion is that when a crisis hits our friends, especially those we call best friends - we must show our love through action! I shamed nobody here, but gave my opinion, and stand by what I said. Trapped was the one who said she felt guilty for pulling back from her friend who had cancer, I encouraged her to be there for her friend while she was still alive, or she may feel even more guilt. Sometimes guilt is for a reason given by G-d, so we can do teshuvah...What would our Matriarchs have done in Trapped's case?? Reply

mimi December 29, 2006

Sassy Sarah Ruth:
I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your son. It must have been very difficult for you to deal with it , especially knowing that friends were pulling back. I must say, however, that I honestly don't see the point of shaming a person who is honest about their feelings and is seeking guidance. I think that Trapped is an admirable person for admitting her issues and trying to deal with them. Reply

SassySarahRuth November 28, 2006

Mitzvah vs Trapped Dear Trapped,

When my firstborn son, Z"L, battled cancer, there were some 'friends' that avoided me because they had your view, and were more concerned with their feelings, than being there for me as a friend...When you needed some people most, they avoided you. Remember you will be treated as you treat others. Please be there for your friend no matter what, this is the right thing to do.

When I read this, all I saw was that you were concerned about you and your feelings, not your friends! Is this about you or her? It should be about her, and you being there for her as a friend. Your BEST Friend!? You should feel guilty, because the right thing to do (the mitzvah here) is to continue to be her friend no matter what. She is the one going through pain and suffering battling cancer, not you. You will be ok, she may die, then how will you feel? Reply

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