It’s never easy to hear that a friend is battling a life-threatening illness. When confronted with the idea of death, especially when it concerns someone one loves, it’s often hard to know what to say or how to react.
It’s normal to experience a whole host of emotions, from denial to anger to grief, and it’s important to be able to talk with both the friend and other professional and personal outlets as needed.
However, in times of confusion and sadness, it’s very, very easy to say the wrong thing. Here are some examples of common verbal faux pas, and what to say instead.
“How are you feeling?”
According to Dr. Sal Raichbach PsyD at Ambrosia Treatment Center, asking someone how they feel is a natural and instinctive way to start a conversation. “But, for someone with a terminal illness who is likely in pain, asking how they are feeling leads to further discussion about their illness,” Dr. Raichbach told Considerable.
“Many people suffering from diseases are comfortable talking about them, but some aren’t.
What to say instead: “Start the conversation with a positive greeting, such as, ‘It’s great to see you,’ ” Dr. Raichbach advised.
A good way to navigate conversations with an afflicted friend is to let them bring up discussions of their illness. If they want to talk about it, you can be a great friend and offer support by listening. If they just want to talk about last week’s episode of Jeopardy, however, let the conversation be just that.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Whatever you do, avoid clichés, especially ones that might clash with your friend’s personal beliefs. “Such statements can make the individual feel that the illness is somehow their fault. Even though it might not be your intention to make them feel responsible for their disease, it could lead them to dwell on the uncertainty of their situation,” Dr. Raichbach said.
There’s nothing worse than feeling like karma has somehow contributed to one’s illness, and your friend might not have reached a place of acceptance with their diagnosis yet.
What to say instead: Silence is golden in this case. People facing life-threatening illnesses have plenty of opportunity to consider their own beliefs and consult with spiritual advisors if they choose. Let your loved one express their own views, and be there to lend a nonjudgmental ear.
“I’m sure you’ll get better!”
Kriss A. Kevorkian, PhD, MSW, is a thanatologist who teaches and offer programs for seniors around related to end-of-life care and planning. She told Considerable that these expressions of false hope usually come from a fear of thinking or talking about death.
What to say instead: “One thing to say as a loved one is dying is, ‘I’m here with you,’ ” Dr. Kevorkian said. “Be with the dying and hold hands if that’s OK, connect, and be present.”
Often, one of the most powerful actions you can take when supporting a terminally ill loved one is simply being there. Offering your time and physical presence tends to go much farther than we give it credit for.
“You don’t look very sick!”
This is another one that Dr. Kevorkian hears a lot, and, quite frankly, it’s not very helpful. Illnesses present in all sorts of ways, and just because someone hasn’t lost all their hair from chemo, it doesn’t mean their disease isn’t grave. Even if these sort of sentiments are meant as a joke, one can’t always be sure that a terminally ill patient will take them that way.
Say this instead: Instead of commenting on their looks, remind them of a time they brightened your life and talk about how great a friend they’ve been.
Sherry Cormier, PhD, recommended affirmations such as, “I’m thinking about you as you go through this process” or, “I’m sending love (or prayers or hugs) your way.” Show your friend that you acknowledge the difficulty of what’s happening and will stick with them regardless of their struggle.
A simple “I love you” has also been known to work wonders.
“You’re going to a better place/ you’ll be with God soon.”
As Dr. Kevorkian pointed out, such sentiments make bold assumptions about a person’s faith and belief systems. Even if you know that your friend believes in heaven, God, or a peaceful afterlife of some sort, don’t assume they’ve acknowledged or accepted their place there quite yet.
What to say instead: The best way to learn where someone might be with their diagnosis and what they need from you is to ask. As Dr. Cormier told Considerable, try “‘How could I (or we) be most helpful at this time?’ or ‘I’m wondering if there are specific needs you or your family have that we could help with?’
Don’t assume you know what the needs are. You might take decide they need food and take it over at a time when they are inundated with food and end up throwing your dish out.”
Ignoring the elephant in the room altogether
“The fact is, often people say nothing to terminally ill or dying people or their loved ones,” Dr. Cormier said. “They are too unsure about what to say, so they act as if nothing is wrong and talk about the weather. Saying nothing is invalidating.
What to say instead: “What is much more helpful is to say something that acknowledges the situation, like: ‘I’ve heard you’ve been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.’ Then add a comment that expresses empathy and concern such as, ‘I’m really sorry to learn this.’ ”
After this, let them dictate how much of the illness they want to talk about. If they want to dive in and discuss their doctors’ appointments, offer yourself as a compassionate listener. If they don’t want to talk about it at all, so be it. You can let them take the reins from here, but it’s best to at least acknowledge your availability to discuss their pain and hardship.
Interactions after this initial acknowledgement can circle back to Point #1: Express gratitude about seeing your friend, but let them control how much they want to talk about their illness.
Make sure to seek out your own counseling methods as needed for dealing with any kind of loss and grief. Losing a loved one is never easy, and knowing it will happen sometime soon is confusing, upsetting, and difficult. Knowing the right things to say will at least help part of the process for both parties.