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Four Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving or Recently Been Diagnosed with Cancer

Lots of posts float around fairly frequently about things to say or not say to someone who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer, so I was thinking I wasn’t going to bother and write one of my own. Instead, I decided I’d write one about what not to say to someone who is grieving because it seems there aren’t as many of those. After all, death and grief aren’t terribly popular topics.

As I was tinkering around with what I wanted to write, lo and behold, I noticed the overlap. Things you might not want to say to someone who’s grieving might be some of the same things you might want to avoid saying to someone who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer. I find this overlap in cancer and grief/loss happening quite frequently.

So what are some things to possibly avoid saying to someone who is grieving and to someone who has recently been diagnosed with cancer?

This is my short list. There are probably more things, but I’ll stick with these four for now.

1.  Avoid any kind of ‘at least’ statement.

For instance, don’t say things like at least your loved one lived a long life, at least she didn’t suffer (or is no longer suffering), at least you have more (or can have more) children, or at least she’s in a better place.

In the cancer realm avoid saying things like at least you have the good cancer, at least you don’t need chemo, at least it’s only hair, at least you don’t look sick and please do NOT say at least you get a free boob job

‘At least’ statements will more than likely make the person hearing them feel even worse because they minimize or downplay the emotional pain the person is feeling.

2.  Try not to say, I know just how you feel.

No two people are alike. No two experiences are alike, so no, you probably don’t know how the other person truly feels.

Instead perhaps say, I want to try to understand how you feel, tell me how you feel, I am here to listen. And then let the person share. This is not about you and your feelings. But of course, if the person wants to hear about your perhaps similar experience, by all means share. Take the cue from her.

3. It’s okay. You’ll be okay. Everything will be okay. Consider avoiding saying things like that.

My dad said the first one to me right after my mom died, and I didn’t want to hear those particular words at that time.

After my cancer diagnosis and at various other times, I had several doctors and nurses tell me things would be okay, and I remember feeling like, really? How do you know that?

Again, such statements might seem to diminish and downplay the feelings the person might be having, feelings that things are not at all okay.

Perhaps instead say something like, no matter what happens I am here for you.

4.  Refrain from all the potentially burdensome platitudes such as:  you’re so strong/brave/courageous, God only gives you what you can handle, it’s part of God’s plan, everything happens for a reason and so on.

Such statements are just plain unhelpful and perhaps even hurtful, so why go there?

Consider saying things like:  this must be so hard, I’m sorry this is happening to you, go ahead and cry if you want to, lean on me… stuff like that.

Of course, don’t clam up or worse yet, not show up at all to offer a shoulder for someone to cry on because you’re scared you might say the wrong thing. Don’t worry too much about what you say; just speak from your heart and be ready to listen. And it’s perfectly okay to admit that you don’t know what to day or do. Your presence alone says a lot in and of itself, and your job is not to fix things anyway even though you want to.

And remember silence is so under-rated. Sometimes there are no words.

Sometimes silence isn’t ‘silent’ at all.

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What do you think of this short list?

What might you add?


Four Things Not to Say to Someone Who's Grieving or Recently Been Diagnosed with Cancer #grief #cancer #death #loss #breastcancer #wordsmatter






Monday 17th of February 2020

Thank you for such wonderful ideas. My father was to start radiotherapy today, however, he passed away yesterday. My heart literally hurts. I know that all the loving memories and the wonderful things he did for me during his life will see me through the hard times.


Monday 17th of February 2020

Sonya, I am so sorry. I so appreciate that you took time to share your pain. You're in my thoughts.


Wednesday 5th of February 2020

Nancy, I just came from my appointment with my plastic surgeon, getting my expanders filled yet again to stretch my skin, in anticipation of reconstruction next year. Radiation starts next week. While waiting to go in, I sat with three lovely women, total strangers, all close in age to me, who are going through different stages of this nasty disease like me. We didn't introduce ourselves, just asked questions and listened as each of us shared our stories. I felt so sad but yet warmed by their support, from total strangers in a ten-minute conversation. I wish more people could be like those wonderful women. Thanks for your column.


Thursday 6th of February 2020

Lucy, Sharing stories is so important. I'm glad you and those women were able to connect the way you did. As you said, it's both sad and wonderful. Thank you for sharing about it.

Vicki Wallace

Wednesday 20th of March 2019

About 3 hours after my husband died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an old friend called and told me that "they" have the cure for cancer but they aren't using it because (pick your favorite theory). I was speechless. And I was angry. A year later I graduated to MBC, after 29 years of being cancer-free (or so I thought). I actually considered her statement for about 5 minutes.


Thursday 21st of March 2019

Vicki, I don't blame you for being speechless. And angry. And gosh, three hours after your husband's death, no less. Some people...I'm sorry your husband died, and I'm sorry you graduated to mbc. Gosh, after 29 years too. I hope you're doing alright right now. Thank you for taking time to comment.

Brenda K Benedict

Wednesday 20th of March 2019

We are coming up on the two year anniversary of my husband's breast cancer diagnosis. I've heard many of the comments you mentioned. I could add to your list. Don't tell your cancer story or the story of someone else. What I found was that often those stories did not have good outcomes.

But now our 44 year old son was just diagnosed with prostate cancer. I've been struggling with what to say to him. "I'm sorry" is the first thing I said. I kept repeating that. I am sorry because I know how life-changing this diagnosis is for him. Things will never be the same. "How are you doing?" is another question I ask and wait for an answer without advice from me. Any other suggestions?


Thursday 21st of March 2019

Brenda, I'm sorry two important men in your life have been diagnosed with cancer. I'm assuming they've had or have considered genetic testing, as that would seem like something they'd want to pursue. Your suggestion to not tell your cancer story or the story of someone else when talking with a newly diagnosed person is a good one. It's not the time to do it unless specifically asked. I'm sure it's hard to know what to say to your son. I don't have the answers. Saying, I'm sorry, seems like a good place to start. Someone suggested saying something like, tell me how you're feeling about things today. Or, how can I help make today better for you? Offering very specific things you're willing and able to do for him might be helpful. Or not. Each situation is so unique. Saying, I love you. I'm here no matter what, are always good things to say. Wish I had better advice. My best to you all. Thank you for sharing.


Friday 31st of August 2018

It has been two years since my breast cancer diagnosis and before that my son had been told that he had MS. Something that I was told is that people often say things without thinking, but they say them, because they care. I had some awful things said to me when we thought our son had MS. I know that things that were said was in an attempt to comfort. One thing that I have realized is that I have had so many people tell me how good I look. Well I was blessed not to need chemo, but did go through radiation and now am on daily meds to help prevent the cancer from returning. I really have not looked sick to most people, but my husband will tell you and some of my friends and my kids that they can tell by looking at me that I don't feel well. I deal with side effects most every day and at this point only a few people around me realize that I am still dealing with the emotions and the side effects of having had cancer. I try to remember that people care, even when they say things that are hurtful and difficult to deal with, I have done that too, not intentionally. I use to always say to those dealing with cancer and other illness that they looked good. I am going to make an effort to not say that in the future. Thanks for you comments, I will try to keep them in mind when I talk to others going through these things.

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