What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say

Lately I seem to be hearing about adverse diagnoses every day.  I carefully compose my notes to friends to provide support while editing out my worries. My oft-used phrase is: “I’m so sorry to hear the news about your diagnosis.”  Sometimes I add a few lines recognizing their struggle.  If a long treatment plan is in the works, I will say something to the effect, “I am sorry you’re having to go through this.”

Although my own anxieties create an urge for information, I try to contain the impulse to ask for details.  I queried my friend, Nancy, who is a cancer survivor, about the most helpful comments she received while undergoing her treatment.  She acknowledged that a straightforward, “I’m sorry to learn of your illness” is probably the best.

Stories Don’t Help

Nancy mentioned how unhelpful hearing others’ stories are, regardless of the outcome.  Learning how a friend of a friend beat cancer through herbs or how a relative died during chemotherapy is not comforting.  Simply put, someone else’s experiences do not translate to anyone else’s.  Everyone has to find his or her own way.

In fact, I heard about a woman who announced in an email that she had been diagnosed with cancer and asked people for their well wishes but NOT their stories.  Some people keep their diagnoses to themselves in order to avoid such reactions and stories.  Others are secretive because they don’t want the pitying looks or to be defined by their illness.

Nancy also commented that telling someone with a terminal illness that “they can beat their illness” may not be comforting.  I remember my friend Susan (who battled cancer for four years) telling me she couldn’t give up because so many people didn’t want her to give up.  I would imagine that the last thing anyone needs when facing their mortality is feeling guilty about wanting to die.

Another friend, John, who is currently receiving treatment for his stage IV cancer, added that providing suggestions to those grappling with health issues is often misguided.  Being someone who likes to process out loud, however, John appreciates the invitation to talk by receiving open-ended inquiries such as, “how’s it going or how are you doing?” 

Being at a loss for words is not restricted to our responses to people with serious illnesses.  A colleague sent an email informing a group that her beloved dog was diagnosed with cancer.  She asked folks NOT to respond to her email.  Since my own cherished dog had recently died, I couldn’t help but respond with compassion.  The colleague thanked me for my email and explained that her worry about receiving trite comments prompted her to request no response at all.

Just Show Up

Because responding appropriately to others’ struggles has been on my mind, I asked Sarah, a Buddhist teacher and practitioner, her thoughts on what to say when bad news strikes.  To put this in context, she had just been talking about death and what people say to a parent whose child has died.  Sarah said to just “show up.”

Showing up is sometimes possible, sometimes not possible or not practical given our commitments and the reality of having friends and relatives spread all over the globe. I do remember two times when I was able to “show up” and view those times as great gifts … to me.

My brother-in-law was dying of AIDS in Manhattan.  Although he was trying to be secretive about his condition, his partner called to inform us he was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital and would likely not be discharged.  When I called Dan to ask if I could visit, he suggested I wait a month and visit him at home after he was feeling better.  Knowing that the end was near, I jumped on a plane and got to be with him the weekend he died.

Four years ago, I received a call informing me that my friend Susan, who had been battling cancer for a few years, was returning home from a hospital stay in order to die at home.  I boarded a plane the next day, not knowing what to expect or what purpose I would serve.  I spent the next five days answering the door of her home, screening visitors and hearing about Susan’s past traveling adventures.  returned home the day after she lapsed into a coma; Susan died shortly thereafter.  So just “showing up” is good advice when possible.

The Worst News

I imagine most of us would agree that the death of one’s child is the greatest heartbreak one can experience.  Sarah, the Buddhist teacher, leads an annual gathering the Saturday before Mother’s Day for women who have lost children.  Over the years, she’s spoken with many of these women and recalls the unhelpful comments they have received including:  You’re young, you can have more.  It wasn’t meant to be.  She’s in a better place.

Dear friend, Lynn, has endured such a tragedy; her adult daughter died by suicide six years ago. As Lynn says: one never gets over this loss but you get used to living with the hole in your heart. The most unhelpful response she has received while grieving is silence: not acknowledging her pain.  Pretending the tragedy didn’t happen doesn’t make it go away.  A well-meaning friend suggested she not look at pictures of her daughter.

Listen More, Talk Less

When misfortune befalls others, our anxieties kick in.  We want information we can use to somehow safeguard ourselves.  We ask those with cancer if the disease was in their family or about their habits or symptoms.  Mistakenly we believe, if we can check these risk factors off our list, we may be less prone to suffer a similar fate. 

Death by suicide is no different.  The first question others want to know is how the suicide was completed, followed by the signs that may have been present. Such questions may be relevant for those doing research, but for those grieving, such intrusive questions rub salt into an already deep wound.

Help is On the Way

People want to help when others are struggling.  Both Nancy and Lynn said being specific about how you want to help someone suffering from grief or fear is most appreciated.  Offering to drive someone to appointments, bring dinner, weed the garden or even accompany him/her on a walk provides a tangible act of love.

Lynn said sending books, especially spiritual or self-help books, may not land well. She recounted a friend’s experience, trashing the unopened books she received while she was grieving. Finding support in the form of books or spiritual writings is very personal and in the eyes of the beholder. Letters and messages of support and love seem to be universally welcomed. 

Simple words and acts of kindness go a long way when someone is hurting.  Lynn remembers “emphatic hugs” being a great comfort to her, along with messages from friends near and far.  “I don’t want to say the wrong thing but please know I love you and I’m thinking of you” are the perfect words to say when you don’t know what to say.