When someone we care about is going through a rough time, we naturally want to support them. It could be with comforting words, or with practical help. But some situations in life are so complicated they can leave us at a loss for words. A friend whose parent or loved one is battling a fatal illness is one such circumstance. Despite good intentions, many people tend to repeat a few hackneyed phrases that might actually do more harm than good. Of course, the aim is the absolute opposite. It is understandable that you might not be sure what’s the best thing to say in such a difficult moment.
“My uncle had the exact same thing and he got better”. This may sound like an offering of hope, but it’s important to remember every individual is different, and each person’s body reacts differently to different conditions. Another form of comparison is saying “I know what it feels like”. Even if you have gone through something similar yourself, resist comparing. This is about your loved one and their experience. Instead, ask them how they feel, and try to attend to their needs as best as you can.
2. Have You Tried That Thing I Recommended?
Diets, essential oils, new treatments that you read about online. It is better to avoid such attempts to “fix” the problem, especially if you are not a medical expert. Even if you know of someone who was cured thanks to a certain new treatment, remember the no comparison rule.
3. Be Careful with Religious Remarks
Phrases such as “They are going to a better place” or “God never gives you more than you can handle” are common. Remember that not everyone shares the same belief system and such comments can sometimes be perceived as insensitive. The latter can even be interpreted as judgmental, implying one is weak for feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Unless your absolutely positive your friend shares your faith, it may be better to avoid bringing up God in the conversation.
4. I Could Never Handle What You’re Going Through
This statement can feel isolating to the person grieving. They did not choose to be in this situation, and no one feels ‘capable’ or 'prepared' enough to deal with illness and death. They are just doing the best they can during a hard period in their lives. Such a saying implies that you are in a completely separate state when they need you with them the most.
5. Dying is A Natural Part of Life
Pointing out that ‘everyone dies’ in some way or another is unhelpful. It implies the death of their loved one is something your friend will just get over after a while. Instead, let them feel comfortable to vent their feelings to you, and just listen. Sometimes people just want to talk, without being offered any ‘words of wisdom’
6. Let Me Know If I Can Do Anything
This vague statement, though surely well-intended, places the burden of deciding what’s needed and asking for help on the person who is struggling. Often, when attending to a sick relative or grieving, a person can be too overwhelmed to think about what everyday chores need to be done. Instead, you can offer specific things like ‘Would you like me to pick up your dry-cleaning?’ or ‘Would you like me to take the children out for a few hours?’
If you feel close enough to that person you can even go ahead and turn up in their house to help.
7. Did they Have Habits That Could Have Caused It?
An example of this is asking a friend whose loved one is suffering from lung cancer if the sick person used to smoke. It is well known that some habits or environments can prompt certain illnesses. But no one purposely brings disease on themselves. Another thing such a question can imply is that the person asking is actually reassuring themselves that this scary thing won’t happen to them. Instead of talking about past choices, turn your focus forward and reassure your friend their loved one is making the right choices in the present.
8. Sending Generic Flowers With a Card
We all know them, those ‘with sympathy’ cards with curly fonts and pictures of flowers on them. Not knowing what to say, many people resort to such solutions. Don’t belittle the importance of a personal touch. Call, message, visit when appropriate – your friends will appreciate you reaching out and letting them know you care.
9. You’re So Brave
Or alternatively, saying ‘they’re a fighter’ on the person who’s sick. Yes, your friend may be brave and strong but it is not necessarily what they need to hear. Instead, let them feel and be vulnerable. If they need a shoulder to cry on provide it for them. Convey the message that whatever they are feeling is ok.
10. So What Should I Do/Say?
Lastly, something that has a positive effect, is telling nice stories about the sick parent or bringing up funny and warm memories with them. Talk about their intellect, their compassion or their skills. These are the things that define them, rather than their disease. And most importantly, really listen to your grieving friend or relative. Offer a hug at that moment. Just be there for them.