Avoiding Communication With Seriously Ill or Dying Loved Ones: A Mental Health Perspective

Joel Eisenberg

Studies show the phenomenon of avoiding a loved one potentially in life’s end-stage is impactful for all parties.

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Author’s Note

This article is based on personal experiences and accredited media reports. Though I myself am a former mental health professional, I am not a doctor. I will share knowledge but will offer little advice on this matter herein.

All listed theories and facts shared within this article are fully-attributed to individual accounts and media outlets, including JessicaGimeno.com, URevolution.com, and TheAtlantic.com.

Introduction

Abandoning an ill family member is a common phenomenon.

Blogger and Ted X speaker Jessica Gimeno addressed the issue in “5 Reasons People Abandon a Sick Friend,” which included the fear of death as a primary reason.

As excerpted from her blog, which was written with the author’s trademark humor: In October 2008, at the age of 24, I was diagnosed and hospitalized for Myasthenia Gravis, MG, a neuromuscular autoimmune hurricane disease.  One of my long-time friends since high school, Ken, told me he would visit me at the hospital right away.  I waited.  And waited.  Two weeks somehow became five years.  I haven’t seen him since.  Like a dozen of my high school friends, he attended the many annual Christmas parties I hosted pre-MG.  While most people stuck by me, a few friends like Ken left.  It  hurt to look at old pictures because I wondered if those relationships were ever genuine.  But I decided to keep them because it was real for me and, besides, I looked great in those pictures

Tongue-in-cheek humor aside, which frankly can be an effective coping mechanism, the issue is frequently difficult for both parties.

URevolution is a blog site that features extensive pieces about mental health-related issues, including those related to the topic of this article. From “When Friends Abandon You During Illness,” written from the perspective of “Alice,” who is identified as a pseudonym for an anonymous blogger: I am not angry with you, and I never have been. I understand you never intended to hurt me. There was no malicious intent. But what unfolded was a by-product of the thoughtless-ness that is pervasive in our society. With all honesty, if the situation had been reversed, I cannot say I would have done any better. After I became very ill, the friendships I had built disappeared in stages. There was the initial drop-off, the friends with whom there has been no contact since I became ill. Most of them were just friendships on the peripheries, but a few had been close enough to have come to my birthday party three months prior.

The above scenarios are identified as true stories. But what have professionals determined as possible reasons?

Let us explore further.

Avoidance

Several issues may be at play in this regard, including loved ones who had never been so tested and prefer to begin the grieving process now, those who are unable to confront their impending loss, and — as mentioned — an overwhelming fear of death which reminds one of their own mortality. Also, some people simply do not know what to say to or do for their ill friend or family member, and so they pull back from the situation entirely.

An archived August, 2019 article from TheAtlantic.com, entitled “Dear Therapist: My Friend Is Dying and Has Asked Me Not to Contact Her,” addresses the other side of the issue with prudence: My closest friend of many years is battling a very deadly diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer. She is single, childless, and not super close to her family. She is generally a very private person, and I’ve always been the one who knows her best. About four months ago, I traveled out of the country; around the same time, she decided that she needed to disconnect from our friendship in order to stay focused on her own situation. There was no issue between us that caused this, and she’s confirmed that. She has told me that she just needs to deal with this stuff on her own and that it’s too difficult for her to talk about.

That the ill individual in this instance is the one pulling away adds complexity to the dynamic, which in itself is provocative.

Unlike other mental-emotional issues, such avoidance of a dying loved one, or them avoiding you, is most often a highly personal matter that cannot be reversed.

There is, though, help available to better understand either dynamic.

Conclusion

It is often immensely difficult, as mentioned, for both parties to bear the brunt of avoidance.

For the party actively avoiding the ill individual, guilt frequently becomes an adjoining issue. For the party being avoided, loneliness can seep into despair. They are already ill; when hope of any sense of companionship is lost, many pass having already given up on it.

A measure of questioning and of guilt that the abandoned party must be responsible in some way is often a repercussion.

For both parties, if practical at that stage, separately seek a therapist or counselor with whom to speak. The only comment I will make here that approaches advice is, from my experience, doing so may lessen current or pending regret.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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