(From the September 13, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)
Since my wife’s diagnosis of cancer a little over six months ago, we have learned a lot about medical terms and procedures. But we have also learned a lot about human interactions and relationships between those who are sick or experiencing other trials in life and those who intend to comfort them.
There is no doubt that everyone means well. My wife and I always meant well too when trying to comfort others in the past. But when on the receiving end of those intended comforts, we have learned that some things should not be said, other things are very effective, and sometimes saying little or nothing is the best.
Let me address delicately some of the things that are best to NOT say, based on the experience of my wife and other cancer patients with whom we have talked. The first type of comment we heard, back at the time of diagnosis, was the surprised question and almost accusation, “didn’t you get a mammogram?” In fact she did, and it didn’t catch anything. But thanks for insinuating that cancer is her fault. A related question is what we think caused it. Doctors don’t even know that; cancer just happens for a variety of reasons. Such comments are not really comforting to a patient. They seem more motivated by fear.
Another category of bad questions are those that seem to come from personal curiosity more than an effort to calm or comfort someone who is suffering. These have been at times shockingly intimate and personal. Everyone is different, but a good rule of thumb is that people will share the level of detail they are comfortable sharing. Sometimes they share more with some than others based on the relationship they have. Don’t be offended if you don’t get the full report. This is not about you and satisfying your curiosity; it’s about comforting someone else.
When you do get more details, resist the urge to “kiss it and make it better” with comments that tend to diminish a person’s feelings. To a cancer patient losing hair, saying “it’s only hair” or “it’s only temporary” may be true to you but it may not be how the patient is feeling currently. It’s important to acknowledge a person’s pain and allow them to grieve. Don’t make comments that offend them by suggesting that what they feel isn’t normal or serious.
Recognize that each person is different and goes through trials in their own way. Telling someone “you can relate” because your cousin’s co-worker had the same thing does not necessarily provide comfort. If you went through exactly the same thing yourself, you may be able to relate at a closer level. However, don’t expect the fact that others or you went through something will make another person going through it now to feel better. The fact that “many others” have gone through this does not make the experience any less troubling for someone going through it now. It is still a very personal trauma.
So, what can you say? The best is often the simplest. My wife has found the most comforting statements from friends and medical professionals is a simple “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” That’s all. A simple acknowledgement that what she is dealing with is tough. No attempt to mitigate it, show your own knowledge about it, make it seem less serious or real, or any other well-intended effort that just misses the mark of basic compassion.
A way to allow a person suffering to be in control of what information is shared is to ask what to pray for specifically, or if there is anything you can do. Maybe offer something, but allow the person to decide if they need that or are comfortable with that. This leaves things up to the individual and they feel loved without feeling overwhelmed.
A simple “We love you” or “we’re praying for you” goes a long way too. Sometimes the most important thing is not trying to fix the problem, because we can’t, but letting someone know you are going through it with them, that they are not alone. Being there and showing you care is vastly more comforting than trying to persuade someone to think differently about what they are facing.
Also, people going through cancer or other struggles often have a strong desire to feel “normal” for a while. Remember to see them as people and not as patients. Don’t make “cancer” or whatever else they face the top part of their identity. Sometimes saying nothing about their troubles but just spending time with them, talking about their regular interests and activities, can be a tremendous boost to distract from the otherwise constant burden looming over them,
So to sum up, think about your objective when you speak to someone going through a trial. Don’t try to merely satisfy your own curiosity with inappropriate questions or “fix” the problem. Seek to listen lovingly and then validate and understand the other person’s feelings. Show that you see them as an individual. Mostly show that you care about them.