(Names and situations changed as requested)
As we go through this journey called life, we meet many people and make many friends. Over time, we have different experiences that cause us to change, to perhaps grow in different directions. Soon we make new friendships, align ourselves with new acquaintances who have had similar experiences, or perhaps see things the way we now see them.
Our old friends are still there, tied to us by history or fond memories. We may only exchange Rosh Hashanah greetings or touch base for simchas or, G-d forbid, tragedies, but we stay connected for old time’s sake. We stay connected, unless we are given a reason not to.
The chronically ill and their spouses are no different than the rest of us. Before illness, they went to school, made life-long friends, stayed close, made new friends, grew apart but generally kept those old friends – the ones with whom they shared a childhood history – close to their hearts. But as chronic illness takes its toll on relationships, so too does it takes its toll on friendships.
The chronically ill and their spouses have needs that are incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced them. Their need for support and emotional support is paramount. When time goes by, and crisis after crisis occurs, and old friends do not even give a few words of support, then even history is not strong enough to preserve the friendship.
More likely than not, the couple with the illness will let the friendship go, not even bothering to send a Rosh Hashanah card, because the hurt is too great. More likely than not, their friends have no idea why they have been dropped.
Yehuda was chronically ill. His disease progressed steadily in a downward spiral. As he became worse, his needs for support increased. Unfortunately, his friends who were busy with their own lives. They visited and called less and less. Yehuda tried to reach out to his friends, but they either didn’t hear his cry for help or felt unable to deal with it.
Over the years, Yehuda accepted the situation and moved on. When Yehuda’s son was to be married, he and his wife agonized over whom to invite. They decided against inviting those “old friends” whom they felt had deserted them. As Yehuda put it, “What if they decide to come? I really don’t want to see them there. The emotions I will have will ruin the wedding for me.” And so they were not invited. The friends could not understand what happened.
Bracha’s husband had recently been placed in a nursing facility. He had been in and out of the hospital constantly over the last few years and life seemed to have been filled with one crisis after another.
Having no other choice, his family decided on a nursing home. It had been a very long time since Bracha had gotten a call from an old friend of hers and so she was glad and surprised when one came. This time Bracha decided to let her friend know just how bad things were for her instead of responding with the usual “I’m ok.”
Appropriately, her friend asked what she could do for her. “I could use a few kind words about now,” was Bracha’s response.
Much to Bracha’s horror, her friend began to yell at her, “Well, why do you think I made this call, and what do you think I’m doing?!” Bracha quickly ended the conversation, felt worse for having had it, and wrote this friend off her list.
She had no idea why the friend had reacted as she had. Was it guilt for not having been there, or her own problems? Bracha wasn’t sure. What she was sure was that she couldn’t handle a friend like this right now. Even a common history didn’t entitle one to months of silence during a crisis and then a screaming tirade. No amount of history or friendship allowed for that.
Racheli was lonely. Since her husband’s placement in a residential rehab facility almost a year ago, she had been alone. Shabbos and Yomim Tovim had become something to dread instead of celebrate as she came home from shul to her empty house, made Kiddush for herself and spent the day alone.
It’s not that Racheli had no friends. She had many people who called themselves her friends. There were many people with whom she shared a history, but somehow everyone seemed to have forgotten about her since her husband’s placement. Though depressed, Racheli had gotten used to being alone and expected little else. She was shocked and angry when an old friend stopped her one day to say he had had a new grandson, and during the bris, the Mohel told them to keep in mind anyone needing a refuah (recovery). The friend just wanted to let Racheli know that he had two very special friends in mind that he cared so much about ? she and her husband.
Racheli thanked him coldly and walked away. She wondered why this old friend had never called or visited? She thought she would like to be less special and more cared about.
A common history is what holds most old friendships together, especially when distance and life changes get in the way. But history is not enough to keep a friendship when you desert your friends during their time of acute need.
If for some reason calling is too difficult, an occasional “thinking of you” card might do the trick. Cards can now be sent by e-mail and require less than minutes. If you can afford it, everything from pizza to cheesecake can be ordered and sent long distance. Flowers, of course, can be sent anywhere.
But what is most important to remember is that it is not what is sent that makes the difference. It is the few minutes you take to let someone know you care about them. Those few minutes will probably help them get through the next few days more easily. Now you will not only have a common history on which to base your friendship, but a common present as well.
(Names and situations changed as requested)