How to be a Friend to a Girlfriend with a Terminal Illness

Learning that a girlfriend has a terminal disease can be a devastating experience. In this beautiful and insightful blog, Kathlene Mullens shares her experience and tips for dealing with an ill friend.

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  And boy, am I aware.  The issue of which I am aware, though, is of a girlfriend with a terminal illness that is not cancer.  Which disease she has is not important but nobody wants to hear that a loved one has a condition you’ve only heard of on House.  Her prognosis is sketchy beyond being horrible—nobody can tell her an expected timeframe for what “terminal” means for her.  But she cannot have kids.  Her mental and physical health will deteriorate in ways that are painful for her and for me to observe and contemplate.  In all likelihood, I will attend my friend’s funeral.

What do you do when a girlfriend comes to you with this news?  The answer is different for every girlfriend and every situation.  I can only share, with honesty and humility, how my girlfriend and I have handled it, and continue to handle it.

Know the stages of grief.  My favorite explanation is a cartoon giraffe in quicksand that illustrates the whole grieving process, which can take years, in under two minutes.  You’ll need to know the stages of grief to better understand your girlfriend, but also yourself.  As the girlfriend of someone with a terminal illness, you’ll have your own grief to which you must attend. Comprehension of the stages and their absolute normalcy will help you both.

Research. Knowledge is power, as our Schoolhouse Rock days taught us. As your girlfriend goes through her illness and decisions around it, you’ll be a more valuable friend if you know about the disease/condition, its prognosis and treatments, and ways loved ones can help.

Be realistic. In an effort to be supportive and positive, most people will adopt a focused “you’ll whip this, slugger” attitude towards your friend that in some ways denies her an opportunity to share the realities of what may be happening.  Being diagnosed with a terminal illness should color some of your life’s decisions and realities. There are challenges and issues that must be addressed. Refusing to acknowledge these is no help to your friend and will inhibit her in being able to confront her fears and disappointments and to take care of business that needs to be buttoned up.

Having said that, be supportive of treatments.  If my friend wanted to go to a faith healer tomorrow, I’d load up and go with her.  I am supportive of mainstream and alternative treatments that she wishes to try and talk over many of them with her, and have done enough research on her condition to be able to provide some intelligent feedback.  I believe in miracles.  My mantra is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Accommodate the changes she’s going through to make life as “normal” as possible.  My friend, for example, has more trouble getting around and driving. When possible, we walk on pavement instead of hiking trails.  I drive a lot more than I used to when we are together—and more than half the time.  These are small tweaks that allow us to maintain the normalcy that we’ve enjoyed for so long.

Help her plan. Legal documents like wills, living wills, and other directives, funeral arrangements, care plans, and anything else that she needs your advice on—help her work through these.

Be honest about your emotions. She’s your friend—she needs to know how you’re doing with all of this and that you care about her. You will cry with her and for her.  This is okay.  It’s part of loving someone.

Don’t act like she has an “expiration date.” We don’t know when my friend is going to die.  We don’t know for sure that I won’t go first through some twist of fate. But we are not spending our waning days of life together in mourning.  More than ever, life and health is a precious resource not to be wasted. But we still make plans and talk about the future as if it will happen because, as far as we know, she’ll be around for a while.

Be prepared for Beaches to tear you up ever more than it used to.  The reason that movie is so powerful is how honestly it deals with friendship and death.

Laugh as much as possible. Find the humor and bright sides where you can and help her see them as well.  CC and Hillary showed us how in Beaches.

Should you find yourself in the unfortunate role of girlfriend to a girlfriend with a terminal illness, hopefully these tips help you both.  Remember, though—this is what’s worked for us.  Every friendship and every illness and every woman is unique—be honest, act in love, acquire knowledge, have hope and be pragmatic. The rest will work itself out. Peace be with you both.travel advice girlfriends terminal illness

KATHLENE MULLENS, MLHR, SPHR is the founder and CEO of Female Equality MattersTM, The “No Glass Ceiling” Certification/Brand©. With over a decade of HR experience in four Fortune 100 companies, as well as a master’s and senior certification in the discipline, Kathlene is using that expertise in diversity, recruiting, line HR, employee development, and technology to help leverage the power of consumer spending to yield more women, with more equitable pay, in the C-suite and board rooms. Check out Kathleen on Facebook and Twitter.

What other situations between friends are difficult? Let’s share our girlfriend advice for those. Thanks! & THANKS Kathlene!

As Kathlene mentioned – October is International Breast Cancer Awareness month. Here’s inspiration you don’t want to miss:

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That’s why we’re here – to inspire you to BE A BETTER FRIEND – even, and especially, when life hands you or a girlfriend tough situations.

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