The NY Times recently had an article ” ‘You Look Great’ and Other Lies” that listed six things NOT to say to a cancer or other patient, and then a few things you can always say.
As someone who went through cancer surgery in late 2009, I’m not sure I totally agree with these, but they are interesting and I have some of my own suggestions.
Things supposedly not to say:
1) What can I do to help? The authors recommend that instead of asking this, just do something to help. I kind of agree, but on the other hand it is not always so apparent what one can do to help without crossing boundaries. If you can take action to help, even in a small, seemingly mundane way, I say go for it. But I don’t see how asking is so bad.
2) My thoughts and prayers are with you. This can come off as meaningless, although it can feel good to know that people are wishing the best. People said this to me quite a lot and it didn’t bother me. I appreciated it.
3) Did you try that mango colonic I recommended? This one had me laughing out loud. I totally agree–do not give advice, unless asked. If the person who is sick asks for your advice, that is different. It may be hard to resist giving unsolicited advice, but try your best not to. I recall after my diagnosis that some people were not sure what to say, while a few gave ridiculous advice.
4) Everything will be O.K. I try to believe that people mean well, but when you are faced with a grim illness with a potentially black future, a clueless cheerleader is not what you need. Often times the person who says that everything will be O.K. is really trying to reassure himself or herself, not you. But again, even though people said this to me during my experience, I appreciated it. I took at as people trying to help.
5) How are we today? Super annoying.
6) You look great. Patients are not stupid. We know that in certain circumstances we look like road kill and we do not need someone telling us the opposite. It doesn’t help.
So what should you say to patients? The authors of the NY Times article have 4 suggestions.
1) Don’t write back. This seems unnecessary to me. I never felt any burden in this regard.
2) I should be going now. I think how long to stay is a tricky question, but if the patient looks tired or in pain, I would not stay more than a few minutes.
3) Would you like some gossip? I agree with this one. As patients, you need to think about other stuff besides your current situation and this is helpful.
4) I love you. Again, a good suggestion. When someone is facing serious illness, these few words or some others that convey you really care, can make a big difference. It doesn’t have to be “love”. It can be “I really care about you” or “you are important to me”…
I also have another suggestion. This depends on the patient and your relationship with them, but humor has great healing power. When I was lying in the hospital bed recovering from cancer surgery, it was hard to laugh but I managed to get in a few with the help of some people and it made me feel better. I also remember a nurse right before my surgery, probably sensing I was pretty tense as I lay there a few minutes before surgery, made a funny joke and I laughed.
I still find humor helpful.
The bottom line is that everything people did for me in that tough time, no matter what it was, I appreciated. I was not in a judgmental mood, but rather appreciative.
Just don’t let yourself be paralyzed by the situation into doing nothing at all.
You don’t even have to visit the person. Send them a card, call them, think about them, pray for them, drop something at their house, feed their iguana,….whatever. Just do not ignore their situation because it scares you or you are afraid to do the “wrong” thing.