Waving, Not Drowning

Dear Viv: How should I behave around a friend who is ill?

On this week's podcast, Viv discusses younger siblings with questions about sex, how to talk to an old friend with cancer, downgrading a friend with benefits to 'just friends', and taking the leap to live abroad

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv,

There's a 16-year age gap between my twin sisters and I. They're now in secondary school, and becoming wonderful young adults. But, at 13, they're already starting to ask me about drugs and boys and sex – and I'm worried about giving them bad advice. Can you help?

Oh, heavens. Advice about drugs and boys and sex. I am 44 years old, Caring Older Sisters of Twins, and I would very much like someone to come and give me advice on these mysterious and complicated subjects. Your question is simple, to the point and very short – but you manage to suggest a lot: I like that you note the “wonderful young adults” your two sisters are becoming. You clearly care for them and feel a sense of responsibility towards them. And – do you know what? – I think that might be the most important thing to bear in mind here, not the actual content of any advice they might want you to give.

Information, suggestions and hints on drugs, boys and sex are all very well. But the thing that any 13-year-old girl really needs, I’m pretty certain, is a sympathetic adult witness who is not their parent. Perhaps focus less on what they expect from you and think more about what you can give them without explicitly giving advice. “They’re already starting to ask...,” you say. Well, let them ask as many questions as possible. If they come with one question, then respond, “Hmm. That’s a great question. Do you have anything else you want to know about that? And what else?” Keep them talking and keep them asking. Then you can turn it around and say, “What do you already know about that? If you had to guess the answer to those questions yourself, what would you say? Do you friends have any suggestions?” It will be much easier to correct information that they have already absorbed and guide them towards their own advice than it will to provide them with a bullet-proof plan of action. After all, we all know that it’s all very well listening to other people’s advice, but none of us ever really learns anything until we have lived through it ourselves. By all means, tell them about your experience – maybe censoring whatever you think is inappropriate for their age – but try and send them a really clear message: the most important thing is to keep talking and asking questions and there are no easy answers.

I do also need to broach one missing element here. Where are the parents in this scenario? You don’t say. You might want to have a quick word with one or both of your parents first to make sure they’re comfortable with the twins talking about all this with you. You might find they’re incredibly pleased that you are taking charge of this and so they don’t have to worry about it. Good luck and please do report back with any extra information the 13-year-olds have about the drugs, the boys and the sex. I feel they may soon know more than both of us.

Dear Viv, 

I’ve recently found out that a university friend who I’d over the years fallen out of touch with was diagnosed with cancer last summer. I haven’t seen her in a few years and a mutual friend got in touch to break the news, explaining that she’s already undergone intense chemotherapy, has accumulated “a fine array of fabulous wigs”, but about to undergo radiotherapy and won’t know until two years down the line whether the treatment has worked. 

I’m due to see her for the first time but really nervous about how to behave, particularly as I’ve no sense of how sick she’ll appear? Do I pretend like nothing’s the matter so as not to risk "being weird with her"? Or is it important to acknowledge the elephant in the room?
I’m really scared of upsetting or offending her. How do I treat her like her usual self while also letting her know I’m here to talk about her illness as and when it suits her?

Ah, dear concerned friend, thanks for writing in. I think this is an issue lots of people struggle with so the first thing I want to say is this: let yourself off the hook a bit. This is going to be an awkward situation no matter how well-prepared you are and no matter how much research and canvassing you’ve done over what is the – inverted commas – “right” thing to do. My instinct would strongly be to be guided by your friend who is sick. She will be used to these situations. Let her lead you. If you feel confident enough then just be honest and state your feelings. “I’m really sorry but I have no idea how to behave or what to say to you.” I think you need to let go of the idea of being scared about upsetting or offending her. It’s good that you care but the bottom line is that you might upset or offend her and through no fault of your own. Everyone responds to these situations differently and there’s no fixed etiquette here. Just try to be as relaxed as you can and be open-minded about the meeting.

If you think it would help you, I would recommend having a bit of a Google around, particularly on the Macmillan and Cancer Research websites. I just put into the search box the words: “What’s the worst thing you can say to someone with cancer?” and it came up with 13 million results. So, you are not the first person to worry about this. Some of the advice is obvious -- don’t say things like “That’s a good cancer to have” “You’re so brave” or “I know how you feel” -- I think we all know that. Some of it really bears looking at because it’s helpful -- not just for supporting friends going through cancer but for supporting anyone who is having difficulties in life. Saying things like “I don’t really know what to say” is good because it’s honest and it acknowledges how you’re feeling, as well as showing that you care. “I’m sorry you’re going through this” is also simple, caring and true. Like I say, allow your friend to take the lead and just be honest with her about how you’re feeling. 

You can hear the answers to this and the following questions on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above.

Dear Viv,

How shall I even start. I have a good friend with whom the friendship turned into a little bit more occasionally, a while back.

There isn't any thought on either side to take it any further than that. We both have our reasons in regards to this. However I have started to realise recently, that I'm not really up to it anymore. I feel that whatever feelings I had for him, I've kind of gotten over it.

I don't want to lose him as a friend, but I don't think this is working for me anymore as it is.

Not up for cuddles

Dear Viv,

I've always wanted to live abroad at some point in my life, and finally at the grand old age of 28 have realised that if it doesn't happen now, it never will. But living abroad would mean leaving my job in PR, which I have worked hard to get, my amazing friends, my family, and the life I've been building in London since graduating. What's more, I don't speak any foreign languages apart from un petit peu of GCSE French. All these things point to staying put. It's just such a huge undertaking. But I'm worried that if I don't leave, it will be something I regret when I'm older. I don't even know if I'd be able to get a proper job abroad. I don't know where to start, or even if I should give it a go. I have this horrible image of myself in Paris or Berlin, alone in a grotty flat, with no friends or family around, looking at photos online of all the stuff back home I'm missing out on. Help! 

These questions have been edited for length. 

Got a question for Viv? Email her at DearViv@thepoolltd.com. The Dear Viv podcast airs fortnightly on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

Dear Viv is now available on Acast.

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