Alan writes about his experiences of friends suffering from life threatening illness.

In the past few months, the wives of two close friends have had late diagnoses of advanced cancer which could be fatal.  The husband of another friend has had a stroke.  At the Summer School I go to each year, two couples from last year are now singles, having lost their spouse to cancer.

These are relatively young people in their fifties and sixties, with a history of good health and lifestyle.

I feel deeply upset and shaky in the face of all this.  The presence of death feels big and close.  The distress of the healthy partner is almost unbearable for me: I feel powerless to comfort them or alleviate the situation.

I’ve read some good books and articles about dying, I know some of the good approaches.  But it would feel false, almost insulting, to try quoting things to these close friends of mine who are in such pain.  And whilst most of my blog postings try to offer constructive tips to you, the reader, that feels a bit too neat this time.

The word compassion literally means, ‘to feel with’.  My impression is that when I feel distress along with my friend’s, it does give him or her some comfort and support.  The desire in me to say something which would magically heal his or her pain, or make his or her partner well, I need to realise is a poignantly young, child part of me, who also needs my compassion – but the child’s desire is impossible, is best let go.

My friend’s pain, his or her partner’s illness, are true.  The fear in me is a child’s sense of inadequacy because I can’t make it all OK.  As I try to find my clear, loving adult and spiritual centre, I know I don’t have to make it all right.  Nor do I have to offer clarity in a time of overwhelming uncertainties.  All I need to do is be present in a loving way.

In my own life, I have lived through enough crises and anguish to have faith – a sense that what’s happening is the right thing, and eventually I may understand why.  Currently, my partner Linda and I are trying to live each day as if it’s our last: this is helping us to enjoy each other and all our blessings more deeply.  It’s not stirring up fears of death.

In a strange way, it seems to me that the distress of close friends is harder to bear than my own.

Here’s the letter I sent to one close friend:

Dear Steve

I feel gutted by the news about Sarah’s illness.  I hope that you can both feel my love and prayers, and those of the many friends around you, and the support of the angels and spirits who I believe are with us all.

This must be heart-breaking, and I hope you can open into whatever are the blessings of the crisis – they must be there.  My guess is that it’s a time to drop whatever ideas you had about the future, and just feel fully the love between you now.

If I can help in any way, physically or emotionally, please let me know.

With much love to you both,