Saturday, February 25, 2012

Five Things I Will Never Say to a Cancer Patient or their Loved Ones

This has been a long time coming. Although I thought this stuff well before Dad died, I have not had the nerve, nor the unemotional impetus (because I did not want it to simply be a rant by someone who just lost their father), to type it. A few days ago at the Library, however, the staff was discussing an article that basically amounted to, "15 Things Not to Say to Someone Suffering From [a particular illness]." This inevitably prompted me to revisit some of the various statements I myself never want to hear again (the title explains it all) as well as some of the subsequent conclusions I've drawn as to how I will forevermore bite my tongue.
Watching someone you love experience pain or illness or death is tough enough in and of itself. It makes it worse when those who could not possibly know how or what you feel, try to relate, or offer advice, or proclaim some seemingly sage words of comfort. Even if the recipient understands that the giver's intentions are noble, the words can be frustrating at best, cringe-worthy or anger-inducing at worst.

I understand and respect that people have certain beliefs that help them cope. To have an outlet that allows for explanation and comfort is a wonderful thing. And thus, this is in no way a critique of faith in general. Instead, it is a suggestion that context needs to be considered. Lofty, yet oddly detached, statements are not exactly what those in the throes of struggle want to least this was the case for me. My reality was, and remains, this: I believe in coincidence. I believe in randomness. I believe that we all look back on hurtful or sad events and find "meaning," primarily to make ourselves feel better. I believe some "words of comfort" should be replaced with silence.
And, I believe the following things should never be said unless you know the person well enough to be unequivocally certain they would appreciate them in the context in which you choose to offer them:
1. "Everything happens for a reason." Great, please share it with me then.

2. "When my [insert any friend/relative/random person you once heard about from somebody that one day] battled that same thing, they [insert any illness, side effect, date of death]." Just a word of advice: I don't know one person who appreciates this. Seriously, what in the world is the listener supposed to do with this kind of statement?

3. "Really? Huh. That reminds me of when I [insert any sickness, random pain,or injury and then proceed to talk about yourself for five minutes]."

4. Any cliche about doors closing and windows opening.

5. Any phrase that involves "a better place." In the moment of loss, this is a hard statement to swallow, especially when you know how much the person loved their life.

If you feel the need to say something, maybe try one of these:
1. "I'm sorry you're going through this."
2. "If you need to vent, I'd be honored to listen."
3. "What are your favorite places to eat and/or what are your favorite foods/drinks?"
4. "That sucks. I respect you/you give so much to others/thank you for making me better; I imagine none of this seems 'fair.'"
5. "I respect the dignity/strength/humor/practicality you consistently show."
We don't have to be overtly philosophical or pious when we see struggle. Just be kind, folks.


  1. Beautifully written and spot on. There have been countless times with Adrienne when there was literally nothing I could say, no matter how badly I wanted to make her feel better. Although I'm absolutely certain the helplessness I felt didn't even begin to compare to the pain you all felt. You and Adrienne have helped me in so many ways, but probably the biggest impact you all have had has been helping me keep things in perspective. And for that I am grateful. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Zach, you were (and continue to be) exactly what Adrienne needed. Thank you for loving my sister!

  2. Dear Liza,

    You are so right. I could have written this article but it would be about the death of a child. May I add a couple? Please, please don't tell someone who has just lost a child 1) It will all be ok.--Sometimes things just aren't ok. 2) We can't question God.--Um, yes we can. 3) You can always have another baby.-- I do now have other babies and they are amazing but they did not replace the baby I don't get to see grow up.

    I got so many wonderful cards and sentiments when my baby died and one of the simplest yet most amazing said, "My arms are around you."

    Sometimes it just takes the look of recognition on someone's face to convey thoughts and sympathy. And sometimes, that's all we need.

    Thanks for listening.

    1. Julie, I can't even imagine. Thank YOU for sharing these words. I couldn't agree more with the "look of recognition" statment and I think the three additional phrases you suggested definitely need to be on the list. Sometimes "it is what it is" is so much better than "it will all be ok." Thank you for taking the time to read and offer such a thoughtful response. I admire your strength and honesty.

  3. I have been waiting for you to write these words. I know people mean well and even say things like what you have cited because they don't know what else to say. They want you to know they care, but just can't find the right words so they end up saying something hurtful if not discouraging to the cancer patient. I know it is hard to talk with someone or their family members about such an evil disease. But I also know that as long as there are treatments then there is hope. A person with a strong fortitude such as your dad, will fight what ever disease threatens their well being. Curtis was such a fighter. He thrived on encouragement from our family and friends. He took "beating the cancer" on as a personal challenge. I think we felt that Curtis knew he was facing an uphill battle and needed to hear positive but honest words to let him know we "were on his side" as Pa Pa would say. We were right there with him every step of the way during his battle, and he knew it. There was not a time that I can remember that he or any of us even mentioned giving up. So what does a person need to say to someone facing any difficult or devastating situation? Certainly not anything depressing or discouraging. I think the five that you suggested are perfect. Thank you for writing this entry. You have said so much of what I have felt. Lots of Love,(LOL), Mom

    BTW I love the poster! Truer words were never spoken in my opinion.

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response, Mom. The way you were literally and figuratively "on/by his side" through it all was really beautiful. Thank you for inspiring all us girls to 1) leave pity parties behind and 2)try to handle it with grace and practicality. LOL back at ya.

  4. Brilliant! I find that I have been surrounded by much negativity during my lifetime. Sometimes it is hard not to dwell there, simply because I have that choice. Thank you for the reminder that no matter what the situation lift people up not push them down...Loved it! Renee K.

  5. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Renee. I'm really glad you used the word "choice." We (and I definitely include myself) need to remember that we can always choose to say the thing that makes us feel better or the thing (or the silence) that will be most appreciated by the one to whom we say it. It's like we get so caught up in saying something beautiful or that "sounds good" in theory, we forget to consider the circumstances that have provoked it. We can always choose to put ourselves in others' shoes and we can choose to get off our high horses!

  6. This is wonderful, Liza. I think basically every person on the planet could benefit from reading this. My head is too cloudy right now to say anything more profound, but I think this is so well articulated, thoughtful, and true. "Just be kind." Ahhh - so right, so good.

  7. I agree with so many of your points. I have been trying to get back to this post since I saw it on facebook and am just now getting back to read the blog. For me, it depends on what has happened or is happening. When my Aunt passed away after fighting cancer for several years, I felt robbed she was only in her 50's. There was still so much to do or so I thought. So, no I did not want to hear those words that so many people say when they don't know what else to say. However, when my grandmother passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer's at the age of 85, after losing her memory and ability to care for herself, I found some of those same words comforting because I did believe that she had ran her race so to speak and done the things she needed to do. She had raised her children, seen her grand, great, and great-grandchildren born. She had lived a full long life. I always try to put myself in the other person's place and try to imagine what they are going through. Sometimes, appropriate words do not come. So, I usually just hug the person and say if I can do anything let me know.

    Thanks for the insight!

  8. Thank you for reminding me to consider issues with a little more nuance!

    Very well-said. Thank you for reading!