Words are sometimes over rated. When someone tells you they have suffered a tragedy, or that they have a serious health condition there is no magical response. There is no single right thing to say, as a matter of fact, less is often more. Be present in that moment and listen carefully, feeling heard is a great medicine.
Telling people that I had been diagnosed with cancer was hard for me. Just getting the words out was hard. It wasn’t that I was in denial and it certainly wasn’t because I was trying to be private (I lost my hair, how private can you be when that happens?). It was hard because I would become so emotional. Initially I would sob. As time went on I would cry. Eventually I just became emotional, maybe a little teary. Telling people made me vulnerable. It exposed me. How did people respond in the face of such vulnerability? It varied.
There were the cheerleaders. Cheerleaders said things that essentially denied the severity of what they had just been told. Cheerleaders said things like, “You’re gonna beat this!” While I appreciate the sentiment, I don’t know if that is true. I have talked to the doctors, I’ve scoured the internet for days, weeks and months to learn more about my condition and treatment options and I am not so sure. Don’t get me wrong, I want to “beat this” thing, but you must have been at a meeting or read something that I missed, because the outcome is not clear to me. Another thing the cheerleaders would say is, “you just need a positive attitude.” Hold it just a minute, I had a pretty positive attitude right before I got the diagnosis, you’ll forgive me if right now I am feeling a little less positive. Telling me to be positive right after I have told you that I have a condition that will require at least six months of treatment and that the treatment or the disease might cause my death seems almost ridiculous. Another problem with the “you just need a positive attitude” philosophy is that the logical conclusion of that approach is that if you die, obviously your attitude was not positive enough; your fault, you loser!
Others adopted the “undertaker” role. The undertakers would clasp their hands in front of their body at waist height and tell me how sorry they were. It was very much like being at a funeral or wake when people say to the mourning family, “I am sorry… for your loss” without the “for your loss part.” It was the open ended quality of this response that was scary. I am sorry you have to go through this; your family has to go through this, might have been better. Sometimes the “undertakers” were actually a little funny. They would clasp their hands, dip their head to one side and offer condolences in soft tones with elongated sounds or words. “OOOOOOOhhhhhhhhh, I am soooooo sorry.” Did acting this way make them feel better, somehow? It didn’t do much for me!
I now know that most people do not know what to say when confronted with traumatic news, such as a serious health condition. The things they say are often said for their own benefit to help them feel less awkward or uncomfortable.
I came to appreciate people who were surprised and expressed sincere empathy that I and my family had to endure the diagnosis and treatment. Soon after my diagnosis my wife and I had dinner with another couple. The woman had been a mentor to my wife, her husband was a giant of a man. We sat down at a nice restaurant and Charles put his hand over mine, looked me right in the eye and told me how sorry he was that this had happened and that our family had to go through this experience. He was so kind and so sincere. I was grateful for the people who could hear and sit quietly with my words. I cherished those who did not feel the need to make my words go away by replacing them with some cheerful platitude.
Of course, there was also the “what the heck!” reactions. One person, when I told her of my diagnosis, she responded by saying “Oh, I am so sorry, that’s what my mom just died of.” Not helpful!
So what do you say to someone who has told you that they have a serious medical condition? You don’t have to say much. Telling someone you are “I am so sorry that this has happened and that you have to go through this,” is often enough. You can’t fix what is wrong and you can’t say anything that will make it better, so don’t try. Being comfortable with quiet – is important. The person with the illness will often take the lead by either thanking you for your sentiment, talking a little more about their condition or moving on to the next thing.