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posted: 1/3/2013 3:14 PM

Is this wife of a cancer patient being selfish?

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Q. My husband is in the limbo of being diagnosed with cancer what kind, how far has it spread, prognosis. We are obviously both shellshocked.

I confided in a friend and told her how hard it was to not freak out, and she said, "Please, don't make this about you. Support your husband." Her words stung.

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Of course I will support him, but I can't help but think this IS about me. I guess I believe that I need a little support, too. Am I being selfish?

My friend's reaction stunned me, but I said, "Yes, you are right." And for about 20 seconds I believed her, long enough for the conversation to move on. We have not spoken since, although she sent a warm email to my husband expressing her best wishes.

And, for the record, I told one friend, not 20. The others can learn when I know more and when my husband wants this out there.

Not About Me

A. Since this is the one friend you told, I imagine she's a close one?

If so, then I also imagine you know her well enough to put her response in a great deal of context. Do you know her to be terse or abrupt, or tagged as insensitive when instead she's just stingy with words? Is she a soft place, or a pragmatic one? Is she of the suck-it-up school, and tough on people, on you, accordingly?

Do you tend to get caught up in you?

Her response was an insensitive one, no matter the context; your freak-out impulse is hardly selfish. But there's room for interpretation on her intent. It could have been as awful as it sounds, with her accusing you of self-absorption at an acutely vulnerable time and if her history affirms that, then please do feel free to scratch her off your list of people to worry about as you focus on bigger things.

If instead context says she's a more thoughtful person than that, then consider the possibility that her intent, whatever it was, got lost in abysmal phrasing.

One possibility I can see is that she was trying to keep you centered. When a loved one is ill, it can be tremendously reassuring to remain focused on giving, to resist the temptation to curl in on yourself, to use your loved one's needs as the guide rope that leads you out of a very dark place. She could well have been saying that in so many, indeed, too few words.

It's not surprising that you lost your footing in this conversation, and missed your chance to ask her to explain. It's also not too late to go back to a valued friend with follow-up questions.

Remind her of her response since it has been a while by now and say you took it to mean you were being selfish. Point out the obvious that you felt stung, then ask whether you misunderstood her and, if so, what she really meant.

No doubt you have enough going on without the added emotional drain of dealing with this. However, following through (when you're good and ready) will bring either clarity or your friend back, both of which are useful when your world feels, as it surely must, like a strange and frightening place.

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

2012 The Washington Post

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