Letter to the editor: Terminally ill patients seek compassion, support
We no longer live in a time when serious or terminal illness is an open part of our lives as it once was. Instead, our culture teaches us to pretend that such suffering and death aren’t there, ahead for all of us. So when we’re confronted with these things in a friend we’re shocked and at a loss for words, and we want to turn away.
When I told friends that I had a terminal diagnosis, some said something like “You sound great!” Several people immediately changed the subject, and most of them stopped contacting me and made excuses not to get together. Because many of my friends are at an age when they will come across this situation again, I’m jotting down here a few thoughts that I hope might be helpful another time.
Of course I understand that hearing about such a diagnosis may be too threatening for a friend to offer to be present with it, much less to offer support. In that case, “I’m so sorry” is definitely better than “You sound great,” which can sound like “I don’t want to hear about anything difficult; you’re alone with this one.” You also want to avoid turning the conversation back to yourself: “Oh, yes, I know what that’s like; my mother ….” or trying to fix it: “You should try this …” Someone with a terminal diagnosis, particularly a recent one, is processing things deep within and you will be most helpful if you can offer them a space to share what they’re experiencing.
Here are some things you could say when you’re in that situation; the first set of responses implies offers of support (listening is support), which you may not want to make. But it may be worth at least considering whether you might be willing to be present, even briefly and even indirectly, in your friend’s trouble. At least try to remember that the person may be facing a most difficult moment in their life completely without support. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to be present for others in serious difficulty, so we may feel we haven’t a clue what to say, even if we would like to be helpful.
First, here are some things you could say if you’re willing to be in some way present for or supportive of the other person:
— That must be scary. Are you doing okay?
— I’m sorry to hear that. Is there any way I can support you? (to include, for example, occasional phone calls or emails — or even visits).
— I’m here if you’d like to talk about it.
— How can I be helpful?
Or, if you don’t feel you can be supportive but want to be kind, you could say:
— I don’t know what to say. That must be a huge shock.
—Or even, to use my brother’s phrase, Holy catfish, what a shock! — Spontaneity in this situation can be a treasured gift.
— Oh, no. That sounds awful.
— I’m so sorry.
Remember that this person is still a member of the human race, and hasn’t ever been in that situation before either. If they’re strong enough to sound reasonably cheerful, that doesn’t mean they’re not going through a major shock inside. They no longer have the future stretching out indefinitely in front of them, and may be facing some horrible stuff before the end. You may be able to pick up right away whether or not they want to talk about it. You’re being a real friend if you’re willing to invite them to talk with you; they may not be able to do so with anyone else. If you can’t handle it, at least try to be kind. But dismissing their situation with an upbeat comment isn’t supportive, and is likely to make them feel even more alone.
Of course, if it’s too scary for you to talk with them about what’s happening — or to hear them talk about it — you don’t want to say that you’re willing. But even just “I’m so sorry” suggests that you understand that they’re in a difficult place and that you wish it were otherwise for them.
Even a little compassion goes a long way for a friend in a bad situation. Remember that, in our culture, they may not be offered kind words by anyone else. If they’ve told you what’s happening they are likely to have a deep but unspoken yearning for kindness and understanding.
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