Dear Thelma: I still love my ex, who is sick, but he keeps pushing me away

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Dear Thelma,

I got to know my ex from a dating app.

We started dating after a month of getting to know each other.

Everything was fine in the first month, and we even went for a staycation.

After we came back, he fell sick and started to avoid me.

At the same time, he started on a new job which is tougher than his previous one, as it requires him to do a lot of overtime and even work on weekends.

He said he has no time for me, not even to have lunch or dinner together on Sundays. He started to distance himself from me, avoiding dates and calls.

In the third month, I couldn't stand his coldness anymore so I broke up with him.

Two weeks later, he asked if we could get back together. I told him we can be friends first and take things slowly. He agreed. We talked to each other regularly for a month.

We then went out for badminton with my friends and everything seemed fine.

Until that night, when he called and told me that he received his medical report; he was diagnosed with NPC (nasopharyngeal carcinoma) stage II. He left me devastated, and said I should see someone else, and refused to start a relationship with me.

He actually went for a checkup after the staycation, and agreed to break up with me because he thought something was wrong with him. And he came back to me again when he thought nothing went wrong due to no news from the hospital (no news is good news sometimes).

But he felt uneasy and had another checkup at another hospital, then both came back with the same diagnosis.

After the news, I still continued to contact him, asked how his day went, dropped off some snacks at his car before he left work for his supper (as he is still working overtime and missed his dinners) – I wanted to show him I care for him, that he is not alone in his journey to fight the disease.

But he continues to treat me super politely; he said my care for him is not annoying, but he keeps on telling me to not get myself involved with this, and that dating is not his priority anymore.

Of course, I wouldn't want to date him now, but I'm willing to support him as a friend. Still, he wouldn't budge.

He didn't wish me on my birthday either. It's been two months, and I still feel lost, helpless, empty and anxious, and am crying almost every night.

I feel sad for him, that he has to carry this burden on his own. I feel sorry for us, like why does this happen to us. He's my first love. And I am sad that he has rejected my care. He doesn't want me to get involved, but how could I not?

I feel super lost and am barely hanging on right now, unclear of how my heart should feel. Should I continue to love him? Or should I move on? Am I selfish to love?

I know he is the one who is sick but we are both suffering. He knows I'm suffering too.

I tried going out with other guys, but I'm still not comfortable with that and I miss him a lot.

What should I do? How do I learn to love without asking for anything in return? How do I care for him without annoying him?


Dear Anguished,

I'm very sorry this happened. What a very sad situation. The short answer is simple: When someone says they don't want a relationship, we respect this. He says he doesn't want you in his life. Therefore, you must leave him alone.

Should you find it hard to accept, consider this from a different point of view. Suppose some man tells you that he wants to be with you but you're not interested. Do his feelings matter? No, they don't. Because a relationship can only happen when all the partners involved voluntarily and wholeheartedly consent.

So what can you do? I think you need to pay attention to your feelings and process them.

You met a man and there was a connection. You had hopes for a happy future. When he distanced himself, you were sad because that potential happiness disappeared. Also, you were sad for the loss of the relationship.

Those are perfectly valid feelings.

When he came back to try again, your hopes reignited. Perhaps it felt a bit like a second chance romance? So when he then broke it off again, you were understandably devastated.

In addition, you have witnessed that good health can vanish instantly. Also, you've been reminded of our mortality. This will add to your upset.

I do wish your ex had been more open about his situation. The insight may have saved you from that awful feeling of coldness and rejection the first time he distanced himself. But cancer is so frightening, that I suspect he was simply overwhelmed, poor soul. Under the circumstances, I'd simply understand and forgive.

Given this is a sad situation, grieving is normal. Usually, we take a little time and then we move on.

As you are experiencing some difficulty in letting go, consider this: We tend to value things that are hard to get. That is why we sometimes spend way too much effort on reaching prizes that are just out of our reach.

Hoping once whipped up feelings in you; the rerun intensified this. The sensible part of you has to accept this, but it's perfectly OK to grieve for a while. Also, it tells you something important: You want a relationship. It is one of your emotional needs.

In addition, I suspect you have a little bit of false belief going on. We tend to talk about dating in terms of validation. As in, "If I'm a good person, s/he'll love me." However, while it feels that way sometimes, it's not the way dating works.

Dating is about finding a match. Nothing more, nothing less. You know this because you will have observed many times how two perfectly nice people are not a match.

Bolster what your logical self knows, and counter false beliefs with self-care. Surround yourself with friends, and do all the things that make you happy.

Finally, you brought up an important issue about supporting those struck by illness. Leaving snacks and mentions of his eating habits may sound to you like being helpful but they are not. This is a form of control.

It's not unusual. When faced with helplessness and uncertainty (which cancer diagnoses typically invoke) many of us instinctively try to "manage" and "offer advice".

This is because fear spurs a need for action. There are lots of theories about why that is, but they don't matter here. The important thing is to accept your fear and to put a lid on the action.

That is perhaps the hardest lesson, but it's a very important one. People who are sick are often overwhelmed by people offering unwanted and unsolicited opinions. They already upset and tired, so the last thing they need is this.

So, a golden rule of mental health for cancer support is: Only offer advice if you are asked explicitly. When you get the urge to meddle, go for a run or journal it out. But don't burden the patient with your angst.

What you can do is think good thoughts for him. Hopefully, that will comfort you a little. If you're religious, look into doing some prayers. But don't tell him about it. Respect his wish to be left alone.

I'll think of him too, and also of you. I hope this helps put you on the path to healing.

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