Back in 2011, soon after my family learned that my dad was seriously ill, I had lunch with a close friend. As I shared our family’s health crisis, she said, “It will be OK.” I know she meant well and I’m sure she was as uncomfortable with the scary reality of our situation as I was, but guess what … six weeks later my dad passed away. It was not OK. It was not going to be OK. I’ve never forgotten those words or the lesson I learned that day; don’t ever tell someone it’s going to be OK!
At nearly the same time of my dad’s cancer diagnosis, a friend’s spouse was also diagnosed with cancer. She agrees with me, “It’s going to be OK cuts like a knife,” she said.
She pointed out that another unwelcome comment she often heard was, “I know how you feel.” Her internal reaction to that comment is, “You have no idea. You didn’t love my person and you didn’t lose my person. You’ll never know my loss.”
When families go through traumatic situations, it’s impossible to completely understand what they are feeling. We have never gone through their situation exactly like they are going through it. While we may think our relationship with our loved one (mom, dad, spouse) is similar to theirs, it isn’t. We need to be cautious with our words.
What we might consider saying instead is, “It’s going to get better, but not for a really long time.”
Another friend and her husband have dealt with his cystic fibrosis condition for the last 13 years of their marriage. Although he had a lung transplant back in 1999 which afforded him renewed vigor, he continues to have numerous, re-occurring medical concerns.
What my friend unselfishly points out is that “conversations were, and still are, about him. People ask about him before even greeting me!”
She suggests that there is an easy fix for this: “Ask about me!” Don’t necessarily ask, “How are you doing?” because you’ll probably get the standard response, “Fine” which is likely not the case. Instead ask about their hobbies or the book they are reading or what they’ve just finished watching on Netflix. Conversations do not always have to revolve around on-going health issues.
Simply listening can be a comfort.
Another friend relates: “My mother unexpectedly had a severe mental decline following a surgical procedure. I was faced with placing her in a skilled nursing facility, finding homes for her pets and dealing with the foreclosure of her home, as well as becoming her Power of Attorney. I was an emotional wreck. Someone that was a friend, but honestly, more of an acquaintance, reached out to lend an ear. He asked questions about what was going on and how I was feeling. Then he reassured me that I was doing what was best and that the feelings I had were valid. He was so supportive and it helped me move forward. It was exactly what I needed at the time!”
Another simple, helpful gesture is a hug. A friend dealing with the dual role of caring for a disabled adult sibling and her mother diagnosed with dementia affirms, “When someone gives me a hug and says I’m a good daughter and I’m doing a great job … that keeps me going and reminds me that I’m doing the right thing.”
Your friends and family need your support when they go through rough times. Know that the best you can do to support them is to ask genuine questions about them (rather than their medical condition), listen intently and validate their feelings, give them a hug (with their permission) and if you feel you need to say something, simply say, “It’s going to get better, but not for a really long time.”