Why Friends Disappear When Crisis Turns Chronic
It’s a common experience: Something goes wrong in a family. A child is diagnosed with a chronic illness or a disability. Maybe he or she gets into serious trouble.
You’d think friends would draw closer at times like those. Many drift away instead.
“When my 3-month-old son was diagnosed with intellectual disability last year, lots of our friends just seemed to disappear. We’ve been caught up in his care, so I guess we don’t reach out much. But it would be real nice if they reached in.” Tom, knowing I was working on this article, spoke to me after playgroup.
Katie’s words during another conversation echo many parents’ pain. “Our 15-year-old daughter started stealing from our friends. At first it was little stuff — a lipstick, a pad of sticky notes. Then it moved to jewelry and money. It turns out she was selling the stuff to support a drug habit. Our friends stopped inviting our family over. That’s understandable. But then they stopped calling. I don’t get it.”
Josh is equally bewildered. “When our son was first diagnosed with cancer, his friends came around often and our friends were really there for us. The treatments have been going on for three years now. His friends don’t call very much anymore. We’re down to two really close friends who are hanging in there with us.”
Amanda was trembling as she talked to me. Her 19-year-old daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia last year. “During her breakdown she lied about many things to many people and caused quite a bit of drama among her friends. Now my friends seem to have forgotten us. Where did they go?”
Families like these feel abandoned but are generally too stressed with the demands of taking care of the child and managing the complexity of the medical, legal or educational systems to give it much attention. All they can do is cope. What goes on that friends, even people they thought were good friends, stop coming around?
I think it has something to do with the lack of commonly understood rituals for persistent stress or sustained grief. As a culture, Americans do better with the finality of death. There are religious and cultural conventions for observing the passing of loved ones. People attend ceremonies or memorial events, send cards and flowers, make donations to the person’s favorite charity, and bring casseroles. There is usually enormous support for the first weeks and months after a death and often a more quiet acknowledgment among good friends for years afterwards.