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If I can’t support the person standing at my shoulder, who can I support?

‘I’ve been ghosted by one of my closest friends,’ a woman told me last week. ‘She’s just not there for me anymore; like she’s avoiding me. And the only thing that’s changed between us is I’ve now got cancer.’

How many of us have been that woman’s friend? Desperate to help someone close when difficult times strike but paralysed by the fear of not knowing what to say nor how to say it. And then paralysed further by the guilt of actually saying nothing. We become that ghost and hope no one notices.

Social isolation is a growing problem amongst cancer patients in the UK. A joint 2013 Macmillan and Southampton University report highlighted that patients feeling isolated are three times more likely to suffer from depression. And the problem is not limited to cancer, often the elderly and those with mental health issues suffer the same experience. Allowing someone close to us to feel isolated goes against a natural instinct to live in supportive, community groups; against a desire to be a good citizen; against how we would wish to be treated. But how can we ghost-friends find our voices and give that much needed support?

When my friend, Brian Greenley, was initially diagnosed with bowel cancer I felt awkward and helpless; awkward because I didn’t know what to say and helpless in not knowing how to make the situation better. My unexpected offer (unexpected as much to myself as to Brian) to write letters to cheer him up through his treatment turned out to be a more effective way of supporting a friend than I could ever have anticipated. That simple act allowed us to continue to connect as friends and, for Brian, to know someone cared about him even though they couldn’t care for him.

I regularly hear from people carrying the fear and guilt of a ghost-friend, but also with a desire to find their voice; to be the support that their friend, colleague or family needs. Hearing that neither profound empathy nor sympathy are what’s needed, but instead just a connection to the real world, a world away from hospitals and treatments, a world of hope, is often a revelation. Knowing it is a desire on the part of the patient to be part of a community which connects them with something beyond their illness, something more mundane, everyday like, is very empowering.

Encouraging people to connect through a letter can be, for some, a first step to a face-to-face conversation, for others it is just a part of the support they want to give.

Be it in a letter or conversation, the opening line is always the hardest, but accepting that this is just a first step towards a more meaningful dialogue can reduce the pressure. I’m so sorry and don’t know what to say, is all it takes.

Written words, just as with those spoken, when delivered from the heart and with good intent, take on a meaning all their own. Telling anecdotes of every day happenings and observations creates the longed for connections that illness has strained. Conversations about nature and the environment we inhabit can be a great leveller and comfort.

And in signing off, there is no requirement for grand gestures of future benevolence, just the acknowledgement that they are in your thoughts and you wish them well.

With a letter written and posted or a telephone conversation or face-to-face meeting having happened, a weight is lifted and a fear overcome. But it is often not until the recipient shares with you their joy in having received this welcome gift, that you, the ghost-friend, really understand its worth.

Alison Hitchcock is co-founder of From Me to You, a charity which encourages people to write letters to friends and family suffering from cancer.

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