The second point in the first thread of this series, subtitled, "How are you coping?" refers to folk who really cannot cope with their loved one's diagnosis of cancer. When I was ill, I found there were friends and also family members, who didn't cope well with my diagnosis at all.
In at least one case this was because the lady, a dear friend, had lost two family members to cancer, and she couldn't handle losing me. She didn't live in our town, but she did mean to answer my email. However the days went by, and believe it or not, she forgot I had cancer! A couple of years later, during a phone call, she realised what had happened, and was mortified.
How could she have forgotten me during that time?
On my side, I was confused that she didn't reply to my email. She wrote to me, but it was as if she'd never heard I was ill. Only after we opened up the subject, years later, did I understand what had happened. It was as if her mind had taken over and shoved the subject into a cupboard in her brain, closed the door and thrown away the key. (I'll tell you another story about this cupboard next week.)
Once we sat down and spoke, albeit years later, I could understand and there was no problem on my side. Although, to a degree, she understood what had happened, I know she found it hard to forgive herself.
My suggestion? If you feel you can't cope, perhaps for the reason above, discuss it with a counsellor and see how you can work around the problem. Otherwise a short note or email to the patient could help—along the lines of, "I love you dearly. I am struggling with your diagnosis. As you know, I recently lost ... and ..., both from cancer. I want to assure you that I will be praying for you all the way along and look forward to seeing you later, once I've managed to deal with my silly emotions. In the meantime, please continue to keep me posted, and I will acknowledge your letters (or get your husband to phone me), but forgive me for not going into details or not visiting at the moment."
Then follow through. If you receive an email with a whole lot of details you find difficult to deal with, drop a note or card to say, "Thanks for the update. I'm praying hard." Or "I am so very sorry for all you're going through. I'm praying."
Patients often don't want sympathy. They don't necessarily want you to be there physically. Just to know you love and you care enough to drop them a line makes all the difference.