Thursday, April 25, 2013

Real Talk With Rachel: Wanting to Help but Paralyzed by Guilt

by Rachel Kurzius

Dear Rachel,

I just had lunch with an old friend, who I hadn’t seen in about a month. I guess a lot can change in 30 days. She told me that her husband left her for anotherwoman and  that her mother was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. She is in so much pain.

I left the lunch feeling terrible, both sad for my friend and incredibly guilty for not being there as all of this was happening. Why didn’t I reach out to her earlier? I keep thinking about how lonely, sad and scared she must have felt. I can’t stop beating myself up over this. What can I do?

Can’t Stop Flogging

Dear Can’t Stop Flogging,

How could you have known that these thirty days were so painfully atypical for your friend? We often go weeks without speaking to people we love. I’ve found that there’s just no time to check up on friends as frequently as I’d like, so I assume that things must be fine if I don’t hear otherwise. And to further complicate things, people generally don’t like talking about what pains them most. It feels somehow shameful to bring bad news, and I’ve noticed that people can feel guilty about bringing down the mood or forcing others to share their burden.

Despite these barriers to communication, your friend brought you up to date. Now you’ve got no excuse. Stop sulking about what you could have done in the past month, and start planning what you’re going to do in the weeks and months ahead. She needs you.

The dissolution of a marriage, the impending death of a parent -- these events are examples of the heaviness that sometimes descends. Each instance is unique in its complexities but utterly, universally human at its core.

There is nothing you can say that will change these situations. No motivational quote or allegory can absolve her of her pain. You need to get used to that fact.

Here’s what you can do: listen to her when she wants to talk about her marriage or her mother. Distract her when she doesn’t with other kinds of chatter or activity. Remind her that people care about her, and that she doesn’t have to be strong all of the time. Be strong for her sometimes.

Keep reaching out to her, even if she ignores you.

And don’t forget -- there’s a reason we call it “sharing her burden.” All of this hurt, frustration, sadness and surprise will weigh on you. Make sure you have other people who you can lean on when it feels too intense.

You are a good person and a good friend. Your whole letter to me is a testament to these facts. But you have a friend who is hurting, so make up for those thirty days by tenaciously supporting her in the weeks, months and years to come.

All my best,



Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You
can write to Rachel via or advice @

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