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, or go to Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucer from the wine website Naked Wines(

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

    £65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

    Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

    £20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

    £8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

    £14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable