Walking With a Dying Friend
by Denise Carlson
I’d known Randy Wilson* for twenty years when he was stricken with a brain tumor. Early in the course of his illness, the highlight of this former architect’s day became the mailman’s arrival. Randy and his wife Barb were flooded with encouraging cards and notes. The ringing phone competed with the doorbell as family and friends dropped by with homemade bread, a pot of soup, or a cheerful bouquet.
But as Randy’s health rapidly declined, friends of many years became “too busy” to drop by or call. A few timidly admitted they didn’t know what to say to their dying friend. Most simply ended contact without explanation.
Now Randy grieves for more than his coming death. The loss of long-treasured friendships has compounded the sorrow of leaving his wife and children prematurely.
Abandoning a friend in the face of terminal illness, unfortunately, is not uncommon. Steve Chambers, a former co-worker of mine, saw his doctor for a routine physical at age 21. Irregularities found on this man’s exam turned out to be Hodgkin’s Disease. He remembers the strangeness of feeling well as the oncologist suggested he prepare for his impending death.
During early radiation therapy intended to slow the disease’s progression, Steve continued to hike and fish, but discovered his regular companions had become unavailable when invited along. The concepts of cancer and death made him untouchable to people he’d long considered close friends.
“The avoidance would come as close to killing me as the disease and treatment,” Steve says twenty-five years later. (He’s now a healthy professional firefighter in rural Alaska.) “I was so angry at being treated like a leper by those I thought were friends.”
We risk much when we embrace a dying friend. The pain, helplessness, and pending separation pierce our hearts. In the same manner we move away from a hot flame, we retreat from heartache, attempting to protect ourselves by emotional detachment.
In the Bible God places strong significance on faithful friendship. Paul, a biblical writer, said: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:10, 15).
Despite what the Bible teaches, we find it easier to walk away from a dying friend. Why is this? How can we bring ourselves to maintain such a relationship when we know the risks of painful loss are high?
Why we walk away
On the occasion Barb Wilson ventures to town while Randy remains at home in bed, she sometimes glimpses friends who quickly dodge out of sight. Acquaintances greet her at church from several pews away, unwilling to approach. Even their pastor’s nervous “How are you?” as she exits the church is quickly repeated to the family behind her without pause for an answer.
Why do we walk away from a dying friend? Because many times we don’t know what to say or do. We may be angry at the situation and feel guilty that we’re not suffering. We can harbor doubts about God and feel helpless to offer any solutions.
Awkwardness is also a common reason. What can we say to someone with a terminal illness? How can we encourage our friend spiritually when we struggle with doubts ourselves? Should we pretend life hasn’t changed? What if we lose our composure, revealing our honest dismay at his circumstances?
Helpless to affect our friend’s outcome, we feel inadequate and retreat. However, we must boldly face the fears when our friend most needs our love and support. We need to overcome the barriers so we can continue walking with him to the end of his earthly path.
Many times I’ve sealed a carefully thought-out message in an envelope and sent it off as protection from spontaneous interaction, keeping communication one-way. Yet a letter, if used as an emotional hideaway, is not what friendship deserves.
The telephone can also offer a shield that segregates us from the friend who needs us close. It robs us of physical touch, eye contact, and body language, allowing us to conceal our tears and hide from our friend’s raw emotions. Consider phone calls and notes as supplementary to visits with your friend, not substitutions.
How to help
When a close acquaintance’s life is coming to a premature end, we rail against the unfairness, demanding rationale for the early death. We question God, perhaps angrily, then feel remorse for doubting Him or not accepting His decision. Thankfully, we needn’t fear Him; our anger, confusion and doubts don’t faze the One who designed us with capacity for emotions.
With the help we receive from God for our own emotions, we can face the sorrows of others. But how do we answer the questions that may be posed to us, the tough quandaries with no pat answers?
In most cases our friend isn’t looking for an answer to her difficult questions. She needs to safely vent her feelings with someone she loves and trusts. We must dare to invade the fortress in which she’s sought emotional protection without tearing down the walls, patiently waiting until she’s ready to leave the safe zone with you.
Powerlessness often overtakes us when unable to “fix” our friend. Rick Taylor, pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, says, “Caring enough just to be there, not to solve the problem or make their pain go away” is what makes a difference in the hurting person’s life. “Face it: You can’t fix them.”
By daring to confront our discomfort in embracing a needy friend, we obey God’s command to love one another. God doesn’t offer us a pain-free existence, but He does promise His comfort. We can walk the treacherous path of losing someone we love, knowing He remains steadfast.
God’s love made visible
Faithful camaraderie requires intentional effort. It involves selfless giving, not based on what we get in return. Committed friendship is durable enough to weather life’s worst crises.
The thought of death undoubtedly is at the forefront of a terminally ill friend’s mind, so it may be painful to him to pretend life is status quo. Close friends are worthy of trust that puts us at emotional risk. To allow him the freedom to say what he needs to say, and to tell him how much you’ll miss him, is a great gift. Tears speak to a friend’s heart in a way words can’t.
We must avoid platitudes. Cheerily quoting Romans 8:28 (“[I]n all things God works for the good . . .”) to a dying person builds a wall that shuts out all but the most superficial communication. “The Bible says to weep with those who weep, not to explain why they shouldn’t weep,” says Pastor Taylor.
We needn’t bear the burden of spiritual guide to our friend unless he asks directly. Individuals usually seek that direction from a chosen pastor or counselor. His love is made visible through us when we yield ourselves to Him by seeking to meet our friend’s needs. Loyalty in the face of dire circumstances illustrates God’s practical care.
As Randy Wilson’s condition deteriorates, Barb is often stretched to her limit. Randy’s requirement for physical care, their children’s need for attention, routine household tasks, and overwhelming financial needs lead to constant fatigue. Though many of Barb’s friends no longer participate in her life, a few faithful women have remained pillars of strength to her.
Sometimes acquaintances have written notes or said, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” But Barb, like most people, isn’t likely to impose on others with her burdens.
One day she received a call from a woman she didn’t know well.
“I have three hours I’d like to give you,” the woman said. “Please make a list of things I can do for you this afternoon.”
She arrived to find a short list of chores bearing Barb’s tear stains. She may never know how much her kindness meant. Barb was able to crawl into bed and nap for a short time before their children returned from school.
Sharpen our vision, strengthen our steps
Sometimes love hurts. We lack the boldness required to walk with a dying friend. But God provides courage when we’re willing to reflect His character.
Paul wrote: “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Corinthians 9:10).
God honors our righteous choices. He doesn’t erase the grief from our hearts, as we might imagine to be the richest reward. Instead, He grants us comfort and gives us greater capacity to experience emotions — both joy and sorrow. He sharpens our spiritual vision, increases our compassion, and gives us a greater ability to love as He loves.
*Names have been changed.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.