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Four Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving (or recently diagnosed with cancer)

Four things not to say to someone who’s grieving.

Articles float around from time to time about things to say or not say to someone who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer, so I wasn’t going to bother and write one. 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 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 under-rated. Sometimes, there are no words.

Sometimes, silence isn’t ‘silent’ at all.

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What do you think of my 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


Thursday 10th of March 2022

I typed this out to share on Facebook along with your post, but changed my mind. Posting here.

"I sure learned a lot when I was going through my cancer recovery journey about what not to say to other people going through some type of trauma. I try to be really sensitive. I don't always get there, but I'm trying.

I wish I could use a virtual yellow highlighter and highlight this whole article! I heard every one of these when I was suffering so badly from cancer treatments. And, one not mentioned here when I'd say that these comments were hurtful, I'd get the "well you know they mean well". Add that one to my list of unwanted comments!

My emotions have been and remain really raw (REALLY RAW) since my dx October 2020. I have to take a med that affects my hormones, and therefore my moods, for another 4-1/2 years. The WORST is that lately people have been saying that I look great or my hair looks great. NO I DON'T. NO MY HAIR DOES NOT. I'm not blind, my mirror works, other people's cell phone cameras work, fake compliments hurt my feelings. I look like a fatter, older Pete Davidson (if you don't know who he is, then I look like Albert Einstein). It hurts even worse when people reply "you should be grateful you survived" or "it's only hair" or "but you're beautiful on the inside" or other such insensitive statements. And for heaven's sakes, people, STOP telling people how they should feel!!! I feel how I feel. I'm hurt, I'm angry, I still don't feel very good, I'm doing the best I can.

I was not warned at the start of treatments how much my loss of my looks would devastate me. Not that I'm really vain or that I looked like a supermodel, lol but I didn't expect to come out the other end looking 35 years older and manly. I saw a few photos of me from my recent trip and wanted to weep. Now that I'm off the blood thinners, the bloating is going down and I'm slowly losing the weight I gained on them without having to diet, also my hair is growing back and while it is 100% unsightly, I think in a few months it can go in a scrunchy and I can stop wearing hats to hide it from unwanted fake compliments.

Before commenting to this please read the article. Or maybe choose to not comment at all. That's pretty much the point.


Thursday 10th of March 2022

Debby, I hear you. Boy, do I. And yeah, even if people mean well, that doesn't mean they get a free pass. I'm glad some of your issues are improving. Be kind and patient with yourself. Your diagnosis and treatment are still very recent. I hope you decide to go ahead and share the article so others can read it and also read your astute words. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.


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.

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