Open in App
The Guardian

My husband and I run errands for a family dealing with a serious illness. Why do we feel used? | Leading questions

By Eleanor Gordon-Smith,

A painting depicting a tired woman resting in a chair, and a woman sitting next to her. They are positioned near a window, with the sun filtering through the curtains. Photograph: Artepics/Alamy

The daughter of our friends has leukaemia. It was initially diagnosed 18 months ago but she recently had a relapse. When she was first diagnosed my husband and I did everything we could to help where we could – by cooking meals and running errands, because naturally they were afraid of catching Covid while shopping.

When their daughter’s chemotherapy came to an end last year, we were so relieved and happy for them, but it was as if they disappeared. They would only get in touch when they needed something and seemed to spend most of their free time with the families of their children’s friends. We understood that they were trying to make up for the time lost while their daughter was in treatment but we couldn’t help feeling used. Then the relapse happened.

We’re doing everything we can again to help them but we don’t feel any real sense of gratitude. It’s as if they’re taking it for granted that we will support them like before. They don’t reply to messages we send asking after the child. Another friend astutely pointed out that they may see us as family – someone who is always there for them in their hour of need.

My question is how can we continue to support them through this difficult time without feeling resentful? I would like to believe that if we were ever in the same situation, we wouldn’t fail to appreciate the people doing their best to help us.

This question has been edited for length and clarity.

Eleanor says: It’s a wonderful gift to your friends that you’ve been able to be so supportive so far and it’s another service to them that your question is how you can continue to support them while managing these feelings – not, say, how to confront them or find a way out of the relationship.

It sounds like they’ve been through an absolutely hellacious time. When you’re at the epicentre of a crisis like this, you learn these things don’t, in fact, get easier with time. It’s easy to think they might because most things do – surely at some point the passage of time will mean a rhythm emerges, the shock wears off. In fact, day 300 of cancer or caring for a sick child can be every bit as frightening, as shocking, as exhausting as day two or three. We can become deeply familiar with those sensations; the exhaustion can stop feeling foreign and you can get a deep memory for mortal dread. But the passage of time itself doesn’t take away those sensations.

Related: I was cycling through friends like toilet paper when a colleague declared: ‘Spend quality time with quality people’ | Antoun Issa

Equally, the sheer amount of time involved in managing illness doesn’t diminish over time. Appointments, meal planning, managing school – becoming familiar with the workload doesn’t mean the workload reduces.

Which is all by way of saying: your sense that they might by now be able to return to enough normalcy to say thank you and stay in touch might not match their sensation at all. They may feel as far from normalcy, as hanging by a thread, as they did in week one.

This mismatch can be one of the great tragedies in the caretaking circles around a crisis. With all the love and goodwill in the world, friends and family often do just adjust faster than the people in the middle. Bad news that starts out incomprehensible becomes comprehensible a lot faster when you’re a few circles out. We can eventually get used to the idea that the Smiths had this terrible thing happen in a way we never quite can when we are the Smiths.

With all that in mind, I wonder whether you could think of releasing this resentment as one more way to be kind to them during this ordeal. A lot of love and consideration drove you to carefully prepare meals, check in and do their shopping. You could try to take those same feelings and use them to decide: “I’m not going to expect from them what I would expect of an ordinary friendship”.

This might be as helpful to them as your material support. The safety of a friendship without obligations or upkeep work may be exactly what they need. Years from now they may not remember exactly the inventory of who did what to help. But they will remember which of their friends started to feel a bit like they were tapping a toe and waiting for the crisis to be over and who instead was patient when it wasn’t over.

Ask us a question

Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

Expand All
Comments / 0
Add a Comment
Most Popular newsMost Popular

Comments / 0