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Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

Dear Virginia,

One of my best friends has got a terminal illness and has only a few months to live. I've written to him, obviously, and we've had long conversations on the phone. His main anxiety is his children, whose mother died two years ago. I've always been close to them – I've seen them grow up into lovely young people – and I wonder if I should write to them, expressing my sympathy? I want them to know that there are still people around who care for them deeply.

Yours sincerely, Adam

While your motives are completely admirable, and I'm sure your friend would be really helped to know that you'll be there for his children when he dies, I'm wondering if perhaps you aren't jumping the gun. After all, your poor friend hasn't actually died yet, he's still standing, and I bet his children, of all people, haven't yet come to terms with the news. It might well be that they're waiting for a miracle until the very last minute – and, who knows, maybe there will be a miracle. I know it's unlikely, but these things can happen. I know just as many people who've been given a year to live and have dropped off their perches the following day as people who've been given a verdict of only a few days left, at most, and have staggered on for over a year and are still going strong.

It may be, too, that your assumption that he's going to die may well be taken by the children as some kind of endorsing or even wishing that he is going to die – and they may see your letter as a sign of bad luck and malevolence, even though I know you'd be writing with the best of intentions. Some people – I'm not one of them, I hasten to add – believe that looking on the bright side actually helps people get better, and aids their recovery.

You don't know, either, exactly what your friend has told his children, or whether they've actually taken the news in. It could be that they're preferring to sail along in complete denial – that may be their way of coping. To have you crashing in, blowing their delusions apart, could be a terrible shock, and who will they blame for the bad news? You, the messenger. After that, they wont accept any help or support from you in later life.

Why don't you just give them a ring and say how sorry you are to hear that their father is ill? You can then play it by ear to see how accepting they are of the situation. Maybe one is accepting and another is not. Listen carefully. And remember that by far the best time for comfort is not in advance of a bereavement or, even, just after the bereavement, but well after the bereavement, when all the well-wishers have forgotten about it, all the offers of help have dried up, and everyone's assuming that the bereaved person can get on with their lives. When someone dies, I sometimes write in my diary, a few months on, a note to be in touch with their nearest and dearest – because that's when they'll want the support and kindness and comfort. That's when they'll feel their loneliness and isolation most acutely.

Save your pity and comfort for later. In the meantime, just commiserate with them over the illness – and say nothing, unless they bring it up, of the possible outcome. Who knows, it may not happen for ages.

Just be there

When your friend's children have children of their own, they will be two grandparents short. If they are all close to you it could prove to be a long and happy connection, with you as a loving substitute grandad. Make that connection now and make it strongly, is my advice. Stay around, if you can, after the death of your friend. Lay the foundations for the future. You are clearly a loving, caring person and you will be able to help fill the gap he has left. And, dare I say it, there is nothing more delightful and fulfilling than being a grandparent.

As for now, sad though this situation is, you can make it easier by just being there. Don't hesitate. When we are very old, the things we regret are the things we didn't do, not the ones we did.

Helen Braithwaite


It's too soon

If you are so close to this man's children, I'd have thought that you would have telephoned them by now with offers of help and support. To send them a sympathy letter does not seem appropriate considering your friend is still alive, albeit very ill. Sympathy cards and letters are much better received when the person concerned has departed this life.

His children will have a lot to sort out and cope with at the moment, hopefully with the help of other members of their family. A quick call stating that you have been in contact with their father and wondering if there is anything that you could do for this man to cheer him up at this difficult time would be far more appreciated by them than you writing sympathy letters. By showing how much you care for their father will be of comfort to them. You can then offer your support to them after he has died, when they will need it most.

Anita Ashford


Get in touch now

Of course you must get in touch with them. If this is a hard time for you, knowing that your friend is dying, how much harder for his children. They will welcome contact from people like yourself who have known them for a long time and who are part of their parents' lives. As well as giving support, you will be a link to their parents. Write to each one individually, giving contact numbers and address. However, don't leave it to them after their dad's death to get in touch with you. You must take the initiative. If possible, see them before your friend dies, or at the very least phone them. It may be awkward, but they need to know you're there. You're the adult – take charge.

Karen McMullan



Dear Virginia,

My partner wants to give our son a puppy for Christmas. He's only seven but longing for a dog. I'm in two minds because I feel he's too young and the walking and feeding and taking to the vet will all, in the end, be down to me. My partner works all day, my son's at school, and I work part-time. They promise they'll look after it, but we live in a flat and I dread it becoming lonely and unwanted when its puppy days have passed. I have no interest in animals – but I'm not cruel. I fear it's just a craze that my son and his dad share. How can I dissuade my partner from getting him one?

Yours sincerely, Susie

What would you advise Susie to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas @independent.co.uk, or go to independent.co.uk/dilemmas. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucer from the wine website Naked Wines( Nakedwines.com)