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I was born with spinal cord cancer and wasn’t expected to survive toddlerhood, but thanks to my wonderful neurosurgeon and a series of medical miracles, I did. Every once in a while, my parents tell me about some really stunning things people said to them, like: “Well, you can always have another one,” “At least you didn’t really get a chance to know her,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Please, please don’t say this last one particularly. No matter how noble your religious or spiritual intent, no grieving person is going to think that being gravely ill or dying is a good thing.
As an adult, I had two daughters, identical twin girls, who were born a month apart and died as preemies. I got my own sampling of idiotic input:
- “Well, you can always have more.” (I was infertile and only able to conceive with great difficulty, and the doctors felt that another pregnancy might jeopardize my survival. At the time, no, I couldn’t just “have more.”)
- “At least you didn’t really get a chance to know them.” (Never say this to a grieving mother. Mothers know their babies long before they’re born.)
- “Everything happens for a reason.” (No. No.)
- “Some people just aren’t meant for motherhood.” (Go to hell.)
The worst, and it’s one I’ve mentioned on Quora before, was so horrible to me that I lost all care and respect for the person who said it, and long after her own death, it’s the first thing that pops up of my memory of her. She was a retired nurse who had worked during an era of higher infant mortality. She scorned my insistence on having funerals for my daughters. She said, “I don’t know why you’re wasting money on funerals. You should have had the hospital throw them away.”
I don’t think I have to tell you—at least I hope I don’t—that telling a mother awash in fresh grief that she should have her child’s body chucked in the garbage instead of buried in a proper grave is one of the absolute most wrong things a person can do.
But back to the process of being gravely ill. I live in a family with a lot of cancer, so this comes up a lot.
Avoid platitudes. People dealing with something this consuming, excruciating, and horrible do not want to hear from someone not dealing with these things—how their pain and suffering and loss serve some higher purpose.
Avoid one-upmanship. Cancer patients get so much unsolicited input from people who knew someone who died of the cancer or whose own cancer was “so much worse,” and it gets so old so fast. Even if your intention is to make the person feel as if his or her own struggle isn’t as difficult as he or she thinks, just don’t do it. You have no business negating someone else’s pain.
Avoid making it about yourself. This goes hand-in-hand with the one-upmanship. We live in a time where people want to make grand gestures of support, and that’s great. But before you sign up for ribbon walks and shave your head in solidarity and start crowdfunding campaigns, make sure that they will actually benefit your loved one. A lot of people seem to actually be doing all of these things for the positive attention that “supporting the fight against cancer” gives them, and it does very little for a sick and exhausted friend. Actually, sometimes the obligation to constantly show gratitude for this sort of behavior does more harm than good. Many of these cancer “benefits” give little to no money to cancer research or prevention at all. Case in point: October’s “pinkwashing.” It’s become a marketing strategy more than anything.
Above all, don’t pry for juicy details. I got a lot of gossips whose visits exhausted me because I knew they were pumping me for information. Knowing this, and feeling too vulnerable to defend against it properly, took a lot of life and spirit out of me when I needed it the most. It was like being visited by vultures. I hear people who will drop hints about coveted heirlooms, too. Just don’t.
Here are some things I do recommend when you have a friend or loved one dealing with a serious illness or a recent loss.
If you feel the need to say something, say, “I am so sorry that you are going through this.” Be simple, be honest, be genuine. Don’t make big, flowery speeches about a divine purpose or how transitory life is. They don’t need that. They need to know that you’re there for them and that you care. That’s all.
Look for ways to help constructively. It might not necessarily come in the form of a casserole and a psalm. Do they need a companion and distraction during chemo treatments? Are they having trouble with transportation? Do they need help with child care? Do they need help researching financial assistance? Act intuitively, keep your eyes and ears open, and help directly, where it does the most good.
Respect their boundaries. Let them decide how much help and input they want to receive from you. It is exhausting to be sick and to be expected to gratefully receive a parade of people. The parade actually feels predatory because you get people who want to snap “last photos” with you, see you for the “last time,” and hold you hostage with religious speeches that make them feel better while you feel worse. If they don’t want the hassle of dealing with anyone but immediate family, respect that. If they will see you but are running low on energy, meet with them briefly. If you were never touchy-feely with them before, don’t start now unless they initiate physical contact. Follow their lead.
Don’t try for the “big discussion” thing. Don’t force a heart-to-heart discussion for your own benefit. A gravely ill person isn’t an idiot, and he or she can sense the tone of your visit. It’s better to enter conversations casually and gently. Instead of “I remember you were always … ,” which sounds stilted and final, try pointing out something that triggers an easy conversation: “There was a little boy outside who reminded me of so-and-so. Remember when we … ”
I guess the best way that I can put it is that they’re already going through hell, and they don’t need for it to be any worse than it already is.
What are some things you should not say to someone when they are very ill? originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: