Four things not to say

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





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

  1. Grief is a big one for me because I am still dealing with it, after 17 years now. Your list is good, especially the first and the last. Those annoy me most. Here are some I would add:

    1) It has been “x amount” of months/years now. You should be over it by now.
    2) Maybe you should consider therapy? (Although I am not 100% against it, it shows lack of empathy.)
    3) You need to build your own family in order to change your focus (or suggesting a different change in your life)

    “Sometimes silence isn’t ‘silent’ at all.” Loved this. I prefer silence.

    1. Rebecca, I’m sorry your grief still hurts so much. And yes, your three additions are biggies, all of which are probably best left unsaid. Thank you for reading and sharing. And I prefer silence too.

  2. I too really appreciated the “sometimes silence isn’t silent at all.” To just be there with a hug or a touch of a hand and a welcoming smile is often all we need to do. The person in pain senses that welcome and will go where they need to go with our support. Your list is good and I think if we remind ourselves to not try too hard to say the perfect thing then we are less likely to say something we wish we hadn’t. Trust your instincts and heart. Thanks Nancy!

    1. Lisa, So often people try to ‘fix’ whatever situation they find themselves in when supporting others by saying something intended to help. But the reality is, some things cannot be fixed and there are no words, so silent support can be the best way to go. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  3. Great post, thank you!

    I would add:

    1) Those who preach that positive thinking will cure – when it’s near impossible to think positive when hit with a potentially deadly health (and economic!) diagnosis – potentially putting the bad news recipient into even worse panic; as they are well aware that most of their thoughts are filled with fear, versus being positive.

    2) Those who give advice without even checking to find that it’s actually really bad advice (why should they, it won’t effect them if their advice is bad), and have the nerve to take umbrage that the one with the deadly cancer (or, fill in the blanks in life, otherwise rotten luck recipient) – who has already done the research and found out that it is bad advice –is not interested in following that ‘advice.’

    Unfortunately, I’ve found from personal experience that there are sometimes ‘friends’, and far to many‘social workers’ (maybe they only become ‘social workers’ because the US can’t be bothered to correct the devastating lack of employment opportunities in the country?), who fit that number two description.

  4. Great post Nancy. I would add please don’t try to sell/suggest any quackery e.g. “have you tried… vitamin C therapy, coffee enemas, pomegranate.” It’s cancer, no amount of any of these things is going to cure it!

    1. Hello again Tracy,

      Don’t some of us wish any of those things as in vitamin infusions, Essiac tea, detoxing, Chinese acupuncture and reflexology would cure cancer since if we are particularly used to getting to go to different places and do different things, we would consider it particularly unfair that our reality includes nothing but chemo sessions and medical appointments while others get to live fairly normal lives, and we may be dreading the chemo side effects or that of any other treatment we may go through down the line, though we were lucky with the chemo side effects thus far. It may be understandable why some may try such cures if they were proven to also work though we hopefully would opt to go to a nauturopath who knows full well what he or she was doing.

  5. Great post Nancy i concur Nobody wants to talk about one single aspect of their life 24/7 — not even new moms. Either way, don’t forget to check in with your loved one about other aspects of their life – their work, their relationships, their addiction etc. Just because someone is diagnosed with cancer doesn’t mean she stops being the person she was before.

    1. Joseph, Yes, it’s so important to remember the person is still the same person. Thank you for reading and sharing some thoughts.

  6. Hi Nancy,

    This is a really helpful post that highlights some important dos and don’ts. It makes sense that there was some overlap between those grieving and those newly diagnosed with breast cancer, for the latter are grieving, too. I like the silence point. A hug, a touch — those meant everything to me at the time of diagnosis. When Faun lay sleeping in her hospital room, I would just sit besides her and read a book. We didn’t talk, but it was great just to let her know I was there to support her.

    Great post!

    1. Beth, Breast cancer is a string of losses and so there is definitely grieving involved. Thank you for sharing about Faun again; I can picture you there with her in that very ‘un-silent’ silence. I’m sure you were a tremendous source of support for her. Thank you for reading, Beth.

  7. One thing that kind of sets me off is when someone says “you need to go do something for yourself” or “so what are your plans? “. It feels like they lack faith in how I am coping.

  8. I found it shocking to hear someone tell me many others have it much worse than I. I hadn’t realized there was a hierarchy in cancer, the sicker you are, the more horrible fascination with your illness. This probably falls under your “at least” peeve…at least you’re not as sick as so-and-so… I agree that a steady look into another’s eyes, a nod of your head and silence go a long ways in connecting with the news. Peace be to everyone affected by cancer.

    1. My husband did a version of this on me last night. And after all the times I have begged him to stop comparing my case to others. He likes to comment on how many of the girls we know that have had BC seem to be back to normal, so I should just ask them about it and do what works for them. GGGGGGRRRRRRRR. How many times does a person have to explain that every woman is different in SO MANY WAYS. What “works” for someone else might actually make me feel worse. Also, my onco therapist (everything is onco for me now) tells me that the vast majority of her patients are on antidepressants. Who can blame anyone for getting peace from wherever they can. But I feel that this gives the impression to those on the outside that it’s easier to handle this disease than it truly is because people appear to be doing so well. Also, I find that many are loathe to complain even when they are having issues. I am too honest for that. I will tell you. So this is a problem I will have to learn to deal with when I run up against it over and over. I know that there are so many others going through the exact same feelings and it gives me comfort and strength to stick up for myself. Thank God we aren’t alone.

      1. Rebecca, I firmly believe that #keepingitreal serves everyone better. Sugarcoating things does more harm than good. Keep speaking your truths. That is not complaining. Thank you for sharing.

  9. This was a very good insight along with some of the comments.

    I can add many but will just toss out a few don’ts:

    Don’t ask me what caused it..or what I did to get this.

    Don’t ask me how long I have.

    Don’t ask me which breast was removed.

    Don’t use me a fodder for gossip.

    Don’t ask me why I am still working or doing whatever it is I choose to do

    Don’t tell me what I should be doing with the rest of my life

    Don’t tell me about your pre cancerous lump that has to be watched

    Don’t ask me if I have done my will …unless you are my lawyer, banker etc and its appropriate

    Don’t use your pitying voice or dumb down the conversation

    Don’t tell me at least you had ” x amount of time” or “at least you traveled” or “at least your children are adults” etc.

    Don’t question my decisions for care, treatment etc.

  10. The last writer, Susan, touched on it. Those of us with an advance cancer diagnosis are often blamed for our disease: ie did you not have your mammograms, did you not do your monthly check ups,.how could you be so careless, (to a head nurse) you should. Have k own better, how stupid of you , you shouldn’t have been surprised with being overweight (this from a nurse in a premier cancer centre).

    1. Marg, It’s always horrible to blame patients and when it’s advanced cancer, blaming is even more horrible, not to mention just plain wrong.

    2. In my case lack of grieving knowledge was one of my biggest down falls.My mother in law was diagnosed with brain cancer. My wife was a stay at home mom and was able to take her mom to every Dr appointment, care for her daily and therefore was in the front battle lines. I was working everyday and life as normal. Taking a bigger part with our kids as most of her time was with her Mom. When my mother in law passed and during my wife’s grief I probably said everything mentioned above more than once. I never thought hey I should google how to help my wife during this time. I went with what I knew. I thought distraction would help. Going to dinner, the movies a small trip. Saying all the things I should have never said. Obviously I failed big time. I wanted our life to go back the way it was. For almost two years it was like my wife was out of town working. All of her time was with her mother and I didn’t have an issue with that. After my mother in laws passing it was like she had came home from a long work trip and I was ready to get back to a normal life. Well it’s been four years and life still isn’t back to how it was before the diagnosis and I now know why.
      My father and I were very close. He lived with us his last 10 years. He was healthy, worked everyday and was a big part of our daily family life. Until he came home one day and wasn’t. For the next 18 months I was the one on the front battle lines caring for my father. My wife was with me every step of the way and a major help. We would make trips to the hospital to visit him daily. Taking him food because he wouldn’t eat hospital food. I had to stop working and become a full time caregiver. when he came home on hospice my wife took the day shift and I took the evening shift. I can’t imagine how hard that was for my wife but the amazing woman I married stood beside me through it all. When my father passed away I thought I would be stronger, that I would bounce right back up and continue charging through life. Again not the case whatsoever. Some days I’m okay and then out of nowhere BAM here comes the grief. I guess what I’m trying to say is this. Sometimes people do and say wrong things with the best intentions. I know ignorance isn’t an excuse. It’s just one of those things you have to really go through to understand. You can’t fully understand the situation but you can defiantly see and relate to the pain in their eyes. I don’t know what I need to hear, I don’t know what I want to hear. The only thing I know is I miss my Dad.

      1. George, Thank you for sharing about your experiences with your mother-in-law and then your father. Those were difficult times for sure. You’re right people do often say the wrong things even though they have good intentions. I think it might be helpful if someone simply said that exact thing you mentioned, gee, I bet you miss your dad. Do you want to talk about him? Or not? I am very sorry for your loss. Of course you miss him and you always will. Thanks again for sharing. I bet your words might help someone else.

    3. I’m sure the people with cancers that “weren’t that simple to treat” may be blamed for not toeing the “Pink Ribbon party line,” not showing due diligence with mammograms (though that may or may not offer any guarantee that the cancer wouldn’t go from simple to complicated at some point.) I wouldn’t put it past “pro lifers” to bring the A word or ABORTION in to it as in “how your breast cancer was divine retribution for your abortion,” though there were women who never even set foot in an abortion clinic and they STILL got breast cancer and I wondered what the “pro lifers” would say then, that its “God’s revenge for their being “pro – choice??????????????????????????”

  11. You are so right Nancy, nobody should have to hear the following words.
    When our baby died an emergency room doctor said “well at least you can have more children.” It was like he was saying “no problem, you can replace this child.”

    From a neighbor after my breast cancer diagnosis “you’ll be fine, my aunt had breast cancer ten years ago and she’s fine.

    1. Laura, That is so awful! I am shocked sometimes at how insensitive some people are with comments they make. I am sorry your baby died and I am sorry that ER doctor made such a crude, poorly thought-out and hurtful comment. Such words undoubtedly made you feel even worse. And your neighbor’s comment was insensitive too. Of course, she was trying to lessen your worry but by doing so, she was minimizing your experience. Not helpful. Thank you for sharing.

  12. A dear friend went with me to the appointment with my oncologist when I found out that I wasn’t stage 1 with small lumps, that I was stage 2b with considerably larger lumps than the ultrasound showed

    She was wonderful support and it was because, as you say, silence isn’t silence

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

    1. 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.

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

  17. 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.

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