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Carolyn Hax: Woman wonders why friends don’t ask about mom’s illness

Hi, Carolyn: I’m hoping you can answer this because you have some experience here. My mom is dealing with an array of medical problems right now. It’s very stressful and scary. Several friends know what’s up.

I’m noticing, maybe resentfully, that some friends inquire after my mom and others just don’t ask. It makes me feel like maybe they aren’t real friends, which is a sad realization at a hard time. I can’t imagine not inquiring if the shoe was on the other foot.

Do I just shrug and assume people are busy? Help.

– My Mom Is Sick

All of those are decent answers, depending on what you need and what makes sense for each friend and each friendship.

They’re all different, of course; even if you have one defined group of friends, it’s still just a collection of individual and often very different bonds. With one friend it might be forgivable that she never asks, while with another it’s a slap in the face.

So with that in mind, you could talk it out with this friend, shrug and assume with that friend (though I’d replace “busy” with “awkward” or “afraid to say the wrong thing”), and write off a third -- based on who they are, versus how well their actions approximate what you’d do.

You refer to my experience, so I will too: I did a little of that sorting myself. Based on our histories, there were some people I counted on more, and that opened me up to feeling much worse about it (and about them) when they didn’t come through. There were also friends who no-showed and it didn’t affect my feelings for them. That’s just not who they were to me pre-nightmare, so I didn’t expect it of them mid-.

I also learned there can be wild cards, people who are just really, really good in a crisis – the ones who will call you almost daily during your hell even though you heard from them every month or three, if that, during happier times. They’re the ones who say just the right thing when you didn’t even know what the right thing was until they said it. The ones who understand the usual laws of friendly give-and-take are temporarily suspended, and ask nothing in return.

They were easily the most instructive people for me during an extremely informative time. Their lesson: Life isn’t linear, people aren’t linear, and so we do ourselves and others a huge disservice when our expectations are linear. I actually didn’t need my best friends to be my best people in a crisis – I just needed what I needed, and having some friends with the crisis skills to provide it was enough. I was lucky to have them.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon each Friday at washingtonpost.com.