There’s that period just after your child’s diagnosis when support flows in from sources you never even knew existed – family you haven’t seen in decades, friends you haven’t talked to in years, co-workers who send flowers to your desk and cover your shift when you have to be at an appointment. But we live in a fast news cycle and after the initial wave of empathy crests, all these people in your support community are forced to confront what it really means to be friends with someone whose child struggles with chronic illness.
It’s not easy. Sometimes it can be a lot to ask. And in addition to physical challenges like helping out at work or picking up your sick child’s sibling from school, the fact is that being forced to see the existence of sickness and struggle can be heart-wrenching. For some of your friends, it might be impossible to confront the reality that if illness can happen to your child, it could happen to their child, too.
Add all these factors together and it is almost inevitable that you will find at least some friends drifting away during your child’s illness. Their loss may not be a rejection. For some, this drifting away is due to not know what to say or do – they don’t know if they can talk about your child’s illness, but can’t imagine being with you and not talking about your child’s illness, and so the easiest thing to do is to avoid the friendship altogether. For others, drifting away is a defense that deserves your compassion and forgiveness. A friend’s lack of resilience in the face of your child’s chronic illness may speak to their own fears or trauma or need for safety and perfection. In its own way, a friend’s impermanence can say something profoundly sad, not for you but for them.
On the other hand, when a child is sick is exactly the time we need the support of true friends. Let’s be honest: You really, really need someone to drive your sick child’s sibling to soccer practice! And there are times late at night or in the middle of one of those bad days (of which there are many…) that you need someone to talk to. Your story is too big to keep it all inside. You need someone to share the burden of your truth.
One key to managing friendship in the context of illness is to stop thinking about it as a numbers game. You may lose friends to your child’s chronic illness, but if you’re lucky you may also gain an understanding of true friendship. In the long run, losing 10 skin-deep friends to discover one soulmate is a darn good trade. In this way and so many more, your child’s chronic illness can help you discover what really matters.