When Friends Die (for a child with cancer)

If you're reading this, you have cancer, or have been treated for cancer. When you first learned you had cancer, you may not have known any other young person with cancer. You might have thought that cancer was something that only old people get. Now you know better because cancer has affected you, and you've met other young people with cancer.

Making friends with other young people who have cancer can be a pretty positive thing. Now you know someone who knows better than anyone else what it's like to lose your hair, to miss out on school and activities, to be stuck in the hospital, to get IVs and blood tests, and to be scared that you could die. There can be a special closeness with a friend who is living with cancer, like you. But what happens if that friend with cancer dies?

Dying from cancer is something that no one wants to have happen. The doctors, nurses, and other staff all work hard to keep their patients alive and well. Parents, grandparents and relatives usually do everything possible to keep it from happening. The person who dies fights as hard as possible to keep living, unless there comes a time when the person gets too tired and the fight doesn't seem worth it anymore. But everyone is upset when it does happen.

For the cancer patient, having a fellow patient and friend die can be very upsetting. If this happens, you may have lots of different emotions, and here are just some of them:

  • Sad that the friend has died and won't have a chance to grow up.
  • Sad for the friend's parents and family.
  • Lonely because the friend is really missed.
  • Angry because young people aren't supposed to get cancer and die.
  • Angry that the doctors, God, or someone else couldn't keep the friend from dying.
  • Angry because other people just don't understand.
  • Relief to still be alive.
  • Guilty to still be alive when a friend has died.
  • Scared to die, too.
  • Scared of being friends with any other people with cancer, because they might die, too.
  • Hurt because it really does hurt to lose a friend.
  • Helpless because there was nothing anyone could do to prevent the death.
  • Glad that to have the chance to have such a good friend.
  • Glad the suffering is over for the friend.

When a friend dies, especially after a long battle with cancer, it is OK to be glad that the struggle is over and to be upset that the person has died. You may think:

  • "It was getting so hard, I'm glad the suffering has ended."
  • "Why did this happen? It's not fair!"
  • "This really hurts."
  • "What's going to happen to me?"
  • "Why him (or her) and not me?"
  • "I wish I would have been nicer to him (or her)."
  • "No one should have to go through this."

What can you do if you have some or all of these feelings and thoughts? All of these thoughts and feelings are part of grief, and grief is what happens to you on the inside when someone dies. (To learn more about grief, go to the Grief Basics page) It's important pay attention to grief, and find some ways to help yourself feel things now and even feel a little bit better as time goes on. Here are some things that might be helpful:

  • Talk to someone about what it's like for you having your friend die. Pick someone you trust, and who can really listen.
  • Find another way to express what it's like for you on the inside, like writing, art, music, or a memorial project.
  • Send a card or some kind of expression of sympathy to the family. If you can, tell them what you will always remember about your friend.
  • Find something to do that connects you to your friend, something that your friend liked to do or fits with your friend's personality.
  • Take some time alone to think, just don't stay away too long.
  • Make use of your beliefs about spirituality or your faith group, if you have one.
  • Spend time with your friends doing fun things.
  • Talk about your friend who died to keep the memory of your friend alive, even if it hurts, especially at first.


Remember that one of the best ways to honor someone's life is to live and remember what you learned about life from your friend.

The content of this article was contributed by Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, CT- Director, Center for Good Mourning, Arkansas Children's Hospital. The article was first published in the Fall 2004 on