Tell Me About It: Helping friend with dying brother

Adapted from recent online discussions.

Question: A dear friend just found out her brother is dying from cancer. The friend and brother are young, so this is quite a horrible surprise. The friend lives in my city. The brother is long-distance. I don't know the brother. Any ideas on how I can be of the most use to my friend as she tries to support her brother and cope with his diagnosis herself?

Answer: Oh, so sad. Maybe the best thing you can do is expect and accept that she will be erratic during this time - her feelings and moods will be jagged, her ability to be your friend will be all over the place, she will overreact to X and underreact to Y. If you can be a patient, soft place for her, then you will be of enormous value.

Another great thing to do is just call. If you normally talk every day, then just keep up your normal pace; you'd be surprised at how many people grow awkward and just drift away. If you normally talk once a week, call twice a week.

On a more practical note, you can do things like watch her home when she travels to see him; keep an eye on ticket prices to help her find times to go; pick up a few chores of hers that will lighten her load, etc. As grieving people report so often, it's more helpful when people offer tangible things to which they can respond "yes" or "no," versus coming up with an answer to an open-ended "If there's anything I can do."

E-mail Carolyn Hax at, or chat with her online at noon Fridays at