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.