Carolyn Hax: Friend's comment was stinging; or was it?

01/08/2013 12:00 AM

01/07/2013 9:25 PM

DEAR CAROLYN: My husband is in the limbo of being diagnosed with cancer – what kind, how far has it spread, prognosis. We are obviously both shellshocked.

I confided in a friend and told her how hard it was to not freak out, and she said, "Please, don't make this about you. Support your husband." Her words stung.

Of course I will support him, but I can't help but think this is about me. I guess I believe I need a little support, too. Am I being selfish?

My friend's reaction stunned me, but I said, "Yes, you are right." And for about 20 seconds I believed her, long enough for the conversation to move on. We have not spoken since, although she sent a warm email to my husband expressing her best wishes.

And, for the record, I told one friend, not 20. The others can learn when I know more and when my husband wants this out there.

– Not About Me

DEAR NOT ABOUT ME: I imagine she's a close friend. I also imagine you know her well enough to put her response in context. Do you know her to be terse or abrupt, when instead she's just stingy with words? Is she a soft place or a pragmatic one? Is she of the suck-it-up school, and tough on people?

Her response was an insensitive one, no matter the context; your impulse was hardly selfish. But there's room for interpretation on her intent. It could have been as awful as it sounds, with her accusing you of self-absorption – and if her history affirms that, please feel free to scratch her off your list of people to worry about as you focus on bigger things.

If instead context says she's a more thoughtful person than that, consider the possibility that her intent, whatever it was, got lost in poor phrasing.

A possibility I see is that she was trying to keep you centered. When a loved one is ill, it can be tremendously reassuring to remain focused on giving, to resist the temptation to curl in on yourself, to use your loved one's needs as the guide rope that leads you out of a dark place. She may have been saying that in too few words.

It's not surprising you tripped up in this conversation, missing a chance to ask her to explain. It's also not too late to go back with follow-up questions.

Remind her of her response – it has been a while – and say you took it to mean you were being selfish. Point out the obvious – that you felt stung – then ask whether you misunderstood her and, if so, what she really meant.

No doubt you have enough going on without the added emotional drain. However, following through (when you're good and ready) will bring either clarity or your friend back, both of which are useful when your world is a strange and frightening place.

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