• Keeping Friends

Is a friend’s response to your loss or serious illness a litmus test of your friendship?

Published: July 7, 2012 | Last Updated: May 12, 2020 By | 8 Replies Continue Reading

A recent post on by a reader expressed the hurt and frustration someone felt when certain friends and colleagues failed to show empathy after he lost his mother to a serious illness, in this case cancer.

“Some friends really came through and I can see they are true friends,” he wrote. The question is how to deal with the rest after a loss?”

It’s easy to understand the poster’s feelings of disappointment because these are friends he once felt close to. Another poster said that this had to be an “eye-opener.” Yet, is the failure to respond to serious illness or death after loss or illness a definitive litmus test for  the worth of a friendship? Perhaps. It’s certainly something that merits further thought.

Here are some possibilities of why a friend might not be there for you after loss or serious illness:

  • The friend may lack empathy: the ability to sense, understand and respond appropriately to the feelings of others—and this may be but one example of a more pervasive personality trait;
  • The friend may not have had the life experience to understand and/or respond to the trauma associated with loss; they may believe mistakenly that the person experiencing the loss only needs time alone to get over it (this is one of the reasons why grief support groups are so helpful by bringing together people who are struggling with a common experience);
  • The friend may have a hard time dealing with illness and death, and simply feel incapable of giving more than they did; some
    people become very anxious with serious illness or death because it reminds them of their own mortality;
  • The friend may be self-involved and depend on the relationship for nurturance rather than nurturing someone else;
  • The friend may see him/herself as a more distant friend than you do and assume that others closer to you are better able to
    provide support (this tragic event may have revealed an inherent weakness in the friendship that was there all along);

On the other hand, the person who has experienced the loss may come across so strong and independent that friends assume they are coping quite well on his/her own. Sometimes, we need to be more assertive in making our needs known rather than hoping others will recognize them. And some individuals truly prefer to be left alone or may be so depressed that their behavior suggests they want distance from others. Finally, a grieving individual may have unrealistic expectations or fail to recognize the outpouring of support they have received.

Should you let go of friends when there is a disconnect between your expectations and their respond–because they have let you down in a circumstance like this one? My sense is that it certainly should give you cause to reassess each of these disappointing friendships and do some soul-searching to find out what happened.

Try not to lump all these friends together (because the reason for their inadequate responses may be different). If it seems right to you, speak to one or two of these individuals, perhaps those whose relationship you valued most, and express your hurt. Try to find out what happened from their perspective. That might help you figure out whether the friendships are worth saving.

Hope this helps!

Warm regards, Irene

Other posts on The Friendship Blog that focus on loss, grieving and support:

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Category: Dealing with friends with health and/or emotional problems

Comments (8)

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  1. RS says:

    What a terrific post (and comments) on this topic. I too have had to grapple with this issue over the past 10 months after losing my mother.

    I too have had to greatly adjust my expectations of my friendships, yet I still particularly agree with this poster: “There is a reason why wakes, funerals, and other rituals have endured. For one thing, they help people connect when someone has experienced a death of a loved one. Look, I don’t expect my friends to say the “perfect” thing, but golly I do expect them to show up. I expect a note, even if it says nothing more than “I’m sorry for your loss.” I expect a phone call, something. It’s what grown-ups do, and “death denying culture” be damned.”

    Thank you so much for providing some different viewpoints – I will be writing a blog post on this and will link when it’s done!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was disturbed at how my friends responded when my father was dying; they didn’t seem to pay any attention at all to what was happening. Some had lost parents and some had not. I did not consciously think of this as a litmus test, but I lost faith in these friendships. I realized I had chosen friends who would not be there for me in a crisis in the way I had been for them.

    A few people who I did not know well reached out to me when my father was dying. This was surprising and comforting. None of these people grew into better friends, but their actions were important. I feel good when I think of what they did.

    When I was seriously ill, the ‘friends’ who had been absent when my father was dying were a bit more present. Some, however, broke my confidences and others seemed to revel in the drama of my sickness.

    People have the right to behave however they like; what I can do is have realistic expectations about others and choose my friends much more carefully.
    ~ Birdie

  3. lacole says:

    But what about in the situation when the person hasnt passed away yet, but is very ill??….would you expect then to hear from a past friend?…my mother in law is very ill, brain cancer. My husband heard from my ex-bff concerning the situation, but I havnt heard a word. No, she isnt my mother, but I have known her for 28 years, she was like my own mom (who passed away 20 yrs ago). Is expecting my ex-bff to only contact my husband 1. because its his mom 2. her and I are no longer friends??..I know of the roles were reversed, there is no doubt I would have reached out to her, to see how she was, if there was anything she needed or just to let her know I was thinking of her. At one time, she was my bff, doesnt that count for something at a time like this?? Am I being unreasonable??

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m sorry, but I think it’s utter nonsense to give a pass to someone who (a) hasn’t had enough life experience or (b) who is afraid of dying or (c) who is “uncomfortable” with death or (d) who is too freaking “busy” with stuff to offer condolences. There was a time in our society, I believe, when people mostly just knew, from observations or from their family or church or school or whatever, that YOU DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING, when a friend loses a loved one. Especially a parent! For goodness’ sake, let’s stop giving people a freaking pass on this matter. Really! This is ridiculous. I’m thinking now about people I barely knew who had the guts and common decency to write on a piece of plain note card “I’m sorry about your mother’s death.” And signed their name. That meant a hell of a lot to me. It was making an effort. They didn’t have to say the right thing or buy the right card. They didn’t have to “know me well.”
    I think there are two groups of people: the stand-up ones; who show up and do the right thing. And the others who just bail on you.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’ve now gone through the death of both my parents, my mother in my 20’s and my father in my 40’s. In my 20’s, I was able to chalk up the strange or non-responses of some of my friends to their age and lack of experience in these sort of matters. By my 40’s, I thought most of my friends would know better. I was sadly disappointed. I wasn’t expecting any grand gestures mind you, but a simple acknowledgement such as “I heard about your father and I’m so sorry” would have been wonderful. In the case of two friends, I got complete silence on the matter. That was so hurtful. Looking at this list, one of them I believe fits into the lack of life experience category, plus I think she is just uncomfortable with that sort of thing because I’ve seen her react that way to someone else besides me. We were pretty good friends to begin with, but not great friends, so it was easier to forgive her, move on, and maintain the same limited friendship. The other friend was someone I thought was a close friend. I had helped her during several tramas in her life (such as death and divorce), so I was shocked and very disappointed to get nothing out of her when my father died. I decided in her case that the friendship was one-sided and maybe she didn’t see me as a close friend. So I took a step back, and sure enough that friendship pretty much died a natural death. So I agree with Irene’s advise that you should not lump all these friends together, and assess them each to see how you should go forward.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Ms. Gross, I have not read your other posting. But in response to what you are saying here, that it’s not reasonable to expect friends to not avoid you, because they / we live in a “death-denying culture” does not persuade me. There is a reason why wakes, funerals, and other rituals have endured. For one thing, they help people connect when someone has experienced a death of a loved one. Look, I don’t expect my friends to say the “perfect” thing, but golly I do expect them to show up. I expect a note, even if it says nothing more than “I’m sorry for your loss.” I expect a phone call, something. It’s what grown-ups do, and “death denying culture” be damned. I have known a person or two who was certainly raised right, who was raised to show up when a friend has lost someone. And these same people have run for the hills rather than show up at funerals in my family. But overall, most people these days who don’t call, write, show up–they are just too wrapped up in their own worlds to make an effort. I don’t believe it’s primarily because they are too fearful of dying. And if they are, well, welcome to the human condition. We are ALL afraid of death. So what. We still go about our business every day and that includes showing up in some fashion when a friend loses someone.

  7. Anonymous says:


    I have cross posted this on my book fan page, with the hard won observation — my bother’s first but I have come to agree —- that my expectation of friends at the end of my mother’s life and after was unreasonable. Ours is such a death-denying culture that most people will avoid you at such times, as a result of their own fear. Forgive them. It has nothing to do with how they feel about you. See https:www.facebook.com/JaneGrossAuthor.

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