Monday 11 December 2017

Dilemmas: My good friend is dying, should I write to console his children?

Dear Virginia, One of my best friends has got a terminal illness and has only a few months to live.

I've written to him, obviously, and we've had long conversations on the phone. His main anxiety is his children, whose mother died two years ago. I've always been close to them -- I've seen them grow up into lovely young people -- and I wonder if I should write to them expressing my sympathy? I want them to know that there are people around who care for them deeply.

Yours sincerely, Adam

What virginia says:

While your motives are admirable, and I'm sure your friend would be helped to know that you'll be there for his children when he dies, I'm wondering if you aren't jumping the gun. After all, your friend hasn't actually died yet, and I bet his children haven't yet come to terms with the news.

It might be that they're waiting for a miracle and, who knows, maybe there will be a miracle. Your assumption that he's going to die may be taken by the children as endorsing or even wishing that he is going to die -- and they may see your letter as a sign of bad luck. Some people believe that looking on the bright side actually helps people get better.

You don't know what your friend has told his children. It could be that they're preferring to sail along in denial -- that may be their way of coping. To have you blowing their delusions apart could be a shock, and who will they blame for the bad news? You, the messenger. After that, they won't accept any help from you.

Why don't you give them a ring and say how sorry you are to hear that their father is ill? You can then play it by ear. Listen carefully and remember that by far the best time for comfort is not in advance, or even just after the bereavement, but when all the well-wishers have forgotten about it, all the offers of help have dried up, and everyone's assuming that the bereaved person can get on with their lives. When someone dies, I write in my diary a note to be in touch with their nearest and dearest a few months on, because that's when they'll want the support and kindness.

In the meantime, just commiserate with them over the illness -- and say nothing, unless they bring it up, of the possible outcome. Who knows, it may not happen for ages.

Just be there

When your friend's children have children of their own, they will be two grandparents short. If they are all close to you, it could prove to be a long and happy connection, with you as a loving substitute grandad. Make that connection now and make it strongly, is my advice.

Stay around after the death of your friend. You are clearly a loving, caring person and you will be able to help fill the gap he has left. And, dare I say it, there is nothing more delightful and fulfiling than being a grandparent.

As for now you can make it easier by just being there. Don't hesitate. When we are very old, the things we regret are the things we didn't do, not the ones we did.

Helen, Bray

It's too soon

If you are so close to this man's children, I'd have thought that you would have telephoned them by now with offers of help and support. To send them a sympathy letter does not seem appropriate, considering your friend is still alive.

His children will have a lot to sort out and cope with at the moment. A quick call stating that you have been in contact with their father and wondering if there is anything that you could do for this man to cheer him up would be far more appreciated than you writing letters. Showing how much you care for their father will be of comfort to them. You can then offer your support to them after he has died, when they will need it most.

Anita, Swords

Get in touch now

Of course you must get in touch with them. If this is a hard time for you, knowing that your friend is dying, how much harder it is for his children. They will welcome contact from people such as yourself who have known them for a long time and who are part of their parents' lives. Write to each one individually, giving contact numbers and address.

Don't leave it to them to get in touch with you after their dad's death. If possible, see them before your friend dies, or at the very least phone them. It may be awkward, but they need to know you're there.

Karen, Dublin

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