In February my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was devastating news for her – and for me and our son. After chemotherapy, physiotherapy, radiotherapy and a mastectomy, she has now, thankfully, been given the all-clear. But my mother, brother and sister did nothing to help us in our darkest moments. Not one phone call or visit, nothing. All my life I have been there for my family, yet not once have they asked how we have coped. Admittedly, I have not explained to them how I feel as I want them to come forward of their own volition, so I know that they genuinely care. Also, in the past, they have made a huge fuss over minor things which I unnecessarily apologised for and I now realise I should have stood my ground better, as I perhaps looked weak. I have recently been admitted to A&E with stress and still they do not help in any way. I do not know if they are ignorant, lazy, neglectful or simply don’t care – or perhaps it’s all four.

Aunty Lisa replies

Does it really matter? As I’ve had occasion to say quite frequently in the past few months, family can be a great disappointment. Your letter kicks off in full-throttle outrage and only later gives us a glimpse of where part of the problem may lie. Not that any of this is your fault, but when dramatic exchanges occur in our lives it’s helpful to examine our own culpability and not just point the finger of blame at others.

I’m at an age where sickness is creeping through my contemporaries and testing us all in how we respond to unexpected frailty in previously robust lives. Sympathy may come easily, but action can be hard as it often requires second-guessing the needs of others in a situation you haven’t experienced. Some rise to the challenge with aplomb, delivering homemade chicken soup and brilliantly gauging the simple, practical needs of a family in crisis. For the rest, lacking that instinctive nursing gene, it can be hard to establish where real usefulness lies. That inaction can lead to family and friends appearing unconcerned when, in fact, what they’re eagerly waiting for is instruction or a cry for help.

You need to find your courage, like the lion in the Wizard of Oz. Demand to know why they have let you down so badly

There are also those for whom illness of any form promotes personal terror and a desire to run in the opposite direction. It’s easy to judge them as lacking in commitment, but I’ve seen people paralysed by a mortal fear that is too deep for them to conquer. It doesn’t mean they’re right, or particularly require sympathy but, as in all aspects of our friendships and family ties, understanding people who don’t think or act like you lies at the heart of good communication. Illness for those in its immediate grip is terrible for the victim, and emotionally and physically draining for those doing the caring. Outside of that tight-knit group it’s hard to imagine that those around you are still struggling with their own petty worries.

I’m not trying to make excuses for your family, but close encounters with mortality and serious sickness do have a polarising effect on those around you. People you’ve never liked turn saintly, while dear friends can seem strangely removed from what you are going through. Judging others for their shortcomings does seem to provide catharsis for those in the grip of suffering to vent their anger at the world for continuing to spin while they are going under.

That’s not to exonerate your family. It’s almost unbelievable that they could turn their backs on you entirely at such a traumatic time. What you describe is an abdication of responsibility and a total lack of empathy. I can’t help wondering what back history there may be. You say you have striven to avoid conflict in the past, but even if they have been allowed to entirely take you for granted, helping shoulder your recent burdens seems a minimum requirement for those in your intimate circle.

Yet here you are trying to understand what might have provoked it. Your recent trip to A&E has to be the final straw. I’ve no doubt that the extreme stress you are under has been prompted not just by your wife’s illness, but by the desertion of your family in your time of need and your inability to express your anger.

Waiting for them to experience contrition is clearly not working. You need to find your courage, like the timid lion in the Wizard of Oz. Demand to know why they have let you down so badly, tell them how devastated you have all been by their callous behaviour and then try to listen without exploding to the excuses they offer. If a total change in communication isn’t enough to wake them from their stupor you may need to look elsewhere for the support we all need to be able to count on from those we love. And if that’s the case may I suggest you rein in the family saint shtick and see how they survive when you abandon them, as they appear to have done to you and your family.

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