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?