What Not to Say

I was trained as a hospital support person early in my ministerial career. One of the things I was taught, and eventually shared with nearly 100 volunteers over the years, is that to support a person we must determine how we are to do that. There’s really only one sure-fire way to do that:  Ask the person we desire to help.

When we support a friend or a stranger our purpose is to act in such a way that fully encourages and serves that person. As a minister and counselor I’ve seen so many people try their best to make a horrible situation better by saying the most outrageous things. People don’t try to be unkind or uncaring. It is, in fact, this very reason that causes us to say the things we do:  We’re genuinely trying to help.

In the April 15, 2017, issue of BottomLine Personal magazine, Editor Karen Astrid Larson give a list of four things NOT to say to someone with cancer. However, her advice is applicable to almost any given scenario when tragedy or hard times hit. Here’s what she wrote, as suggested by Nikhil Joshi, MD, author of The End of Suffering, and a Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer survivor:

  • “You’re going to be fine.” This could be taken as dismissive of a very serious situation.
  • “You’re strong, so you’re going to beat this.” Surviving cancer is not about the strength of the patient. It’s about the type of cancer … how advanced it is … and the effectiveness of the treatments.
  • “Have you tried praying/the latest alternative treatment/organic foods/quitting smoking?” This is not the time for lectures or proselytizing.
  • “How are you feeling?” Asking a cancer patient this forces [the person] to think about how bad [s/he] feels.

One of the reasons we grasp at straws when faced with serious issues like a friend or colleague diagnosed with cancer is that we want to help. More than that, we just want to do something. We want to fix it. The fact is, however, it’s not our job to do any of that.

The way we can support a person with cancer or anyone going through difficult times is to listen. Be there and listen. Someone going through chemotherapy and radiation treatments feels like crap warmed over and often looks worse. That’s not being unkind; it’s the experience most cancer survivors have gone through. It’s also not the way one wants to present oneself to even their closest friends, let alone the world.

Each of us goes through challenges differently. The important factor to remember in supporting others is that if we are truly desirous of supporting them it must be on their terms, not ours. We also have to be willing to admit that we might not be the perfect person to help at any given time.

As long as we are coming from unconditional love – and not judgment or trying to take charge – we have a pretty good chance of the other person understanding our good intentions. In the case of going through cancer treatments, people are poked and prodded with unending zeal by technicians and physicians alike. It can appear everything is being done to them, not for them. Because of this it’s important to emphasize that they are in charge of everything, including how they are served by those of us who seek to help.

In Spirit, Truth and Playfulness,


Copyright © 2017 Terry Drew Karanen. All rights reserved.

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