My best friend has cancer and I’m upset at not being able to hold her hand

Tell Me About It: Meeting my friend is not an option as she is in such a high-risk group

PROBLEM: I am in my early 60s and I am writing for advice because I feel very caught. My daughter is a nurse working in a general hospital and I have been the primary carer for her two children since her separation two years ago.

The children are aged six and eight, and I have always dropped them off at school and picked them up afterwards. I live a short drive away from my daughter’s house, so this arrangement has always worked out and now I have agreed to cover the time the children are not at school.

However, my best friend has cancer and I have been her main support since she became widowed four years ago. We grew up together and have shared our lives through every joy and hardship, and I am torn by not being able to see her during the coronavirus outbreak.

I know that she will be generous and tell me that I need to protect the children and myself, but this is her second time getting cancer and I fear that I have little time left with her and I feel heartbroken. I know that technology allows Skype and WhatsApp to keep up contact, but, while this offers some hope, I still feel very upset at not being able to hold her hand when she is going through the worst of times.

My daughter understands very well, due to her profession but she is very matter of fact and says that meeting my friend is simply not an option as she is in such a high-risk group.

I would usually talk over any of my worries with my friend, but I don’t feel able to burden her further at this time and I find I am getting more anxious and fearful as time passes.

I’m not sleeping well and find that I wake up feeling a bit panicky.

ADVICE: When we are full of fear and anxiety, talking to someone who loves us is a huge part of lowering our rising panic. Getting a hug from someone who understands can work wonders and, at the moment, these options are not really open to you. However, you may be underestimating your friend’s capacity to offer you comfort and she may also be protecting you from her fears of isolation at this time.

We often equate love with protecting those we love from our worst fears and concerns, but this can lead to cutting off our biggest support system. Our loved ones then reciprocate by keeping their own worries from us so as not to burden us.

Honour your friend by speaking honestly to her and asking her to let you know if she cannot cope with your worries

We would not want this: we want those we love to be able to lean on us in hard times, to allow us to be their confidants so that the burden is shared and halved. In order to do this, we need to change our concept of love from that of protection to one in which we have faith in the other person’s capacity to cope with our anxieties.

This means that you honour your friend by speaking honestly to her and asking her to let you know if she cannot cope with your worries. This, in turn, will allow her to express her fears, resentment and so on, with the trust that you will not be overcome or if you need to take a break to mind yourself, you will let her know. In short, equating love with faith in the other person’s capacity will allow for much more openness and support.

Dealing with your own anxiety is an immediate concern, not only for your own wellbeing but also for your grandchildren. Children are very perceptive, and they will pick up on anxiety even if you try to hide it. What we want to inculcate in children is the capacity to express their anxieties so that they can be dealt with and let go of.

We do this by modelling the behaviour we wish to see in them; at the moment, for you this is to seek help and support for yourself. Speaking to your friend through whatever technology is available is the first option but you may also find that some counselling sessions would help you to manage and understand your anxiety.

Most psychotherapists now offer sessions through phone or online methods: see the Irish Council for Psychotherapy and the Psychological Society of Ireland for more details.We are living in a time of uncertainty, and anxiety is a completely normal response to this. However, this often triggers underlying issues and we can feel unworthy of bringing up these seemingly lesser concerns at this time. Do not allow these things to fester, trust that whatever is arising needs your attention and seek appropriate help. This will grow your own self-esteem while also allowing those around you to trust in your ability to mind yourself and they can then lean on you as the need arises.