Q: I loaned some high-end video equipment to a terminally ill friend. She was given three months to live and wanted to record a memorial in the time she had left. That was over a year ago. She is still alive and I need my equipment. How can I get it back?
Well, it’s simple. You ask for it back.
I don’t mean to make light of your question. I can tell that you’re struggling over what’s appropriate, or even kind, in this situation. Is it unacceptably heartless and cruel to demand your equipment back from someone who is dying? I get why you are treading carefully here.
Actually, I would argue that it’s even more heartless and cruel to treat your terminally ill friend as if she is dying. Instead, honor that friendship by treating her as if she were your normal friend who is still alive, because she is. You need your stuff back. Reach out to her and have a real interaction.
The reality is that not every interaction in this person’s life has to be about a pending death. If I have a terminally ill friend who is coming over, I absolutely have empathy for them and want to spend time with them. But I wouldn’t say, “Hey, let me get you the best chair because you are dying!” or “Let me make you a cup of tea in the fancy china because you are dying!” Not everything in their world has to be about them dying. That’s tiresome.Of course her illness makes you sad, it affects the friendship in the sense that there is emotion. That’s your empathy at work, and that’s healthy and normal. But I don’t think that empathy should force us to abandon the normality of friendships like this.
What happens with people suffering a terminal illness is that, especially over time, they crave normalcy. They become keenly aware of how people treat them. They are very sensitive to authenticity, and pity. Very few people enjoy being pitied.
So, just make it normal. Say, “Hey there, I have a project going on and I’m going to need that equipment back. Are you almost done with it? Do you need it a little longer?” As the conversation progresses then you can ask her how she’s feeling and dig a little more about the illness.
What keeps people from making connections like this is that they worry it will be awkward. But I say let’s embrace the awkward! Think of all the good things that come out of “awkward.” That first date. The first sexual encounter - there’s nothing more awkward than that. If awkward is what you need to push through to reconnect with this friend, then so be it. Awkward should never hold you back.