What (Not) to Say
Whether you’re volunteering at Lighthouse Family Retreat and about to meet the family that you’ll be serving for the week… or you know someone whose child was recently diagnosed with cancer… you probably know the heart-thumping anticipation as you ponder a difficult question: “What should I say?”
Those extra heartbeats that you’re feeling demonstrate something important: that you care about the person you’re about to talk to. You want to be kind, helpful, and encouraging. You want your words to mean something.
So what DO you say? And what should you never say?
“Have you tried ________________?”
(Fill in the blank with essential oils… the latest juice cleanse… the holistic doctor you’ve been seeing.)
Remember, the person you’re talking to has done their own research, has listened to doctors explaining every possible course of action, and has ultimately made the impossible decision on what potentially harmful treatment might save their child’s life. They’ve already questioned every decision they’ve made, every step of the process, and the last thing they need is someone suggesting that a daily regimen of ACV and lemon juice might cure their child’s leukemia. And if you have strong opinions on chemo or the medical establishment, please keep those opinions to yourself. You’d be surprised how quickly long-held opinions can change when it’s your child who is affected.
“What is your treatment plan?”
Expressing interest in the nitty-gritty of what your friend or family member has been through is great. But before you even ask this, do a bit of your own research (from reputable sources) so that you aren’t putting the weight of educating on someone who is already carrying a heavy load.
If you take the time to read up on the type of cancer and the typical treatment protocols, you’ll demonstrate to your friend that you truly care about what their child is facing. Then you can follow up with questions about the specifics of their child’s experience. Keep in mind that they may not want to talk about it one day, and another day, they may want to share every single detail. Respect their boundaries, and don’t take their response personally. Don’t burden them with your feelings right now.
“I remember when I . . .”
“My [dog / great-grandma / neighbor’s best friend’s cousin twice removed] had that too!”
It’s human nature to want to relate, especially when we’re trying to be helpful. But sharing stories of your struggle or someone else’s struggle—when the person you’re talking to is in the middle of their own nightmare—doesn’t always come across like you think it will. It can appear to trivialize their own experience (especially when you’re comparing their child’s cancer journey to that of a pet). It also appears as an attempt to focus the attention on yourself rather than your friend or family member who is going through the hard situation.
“This must be so hard. I’m really sorry.”
Sometimes those words are enough. And once you’ve said them, just listen. Don’t be afraid to even admit that you’re not sure what to say. Don’t fill the space with hurtful or careless words just because you’re scared of the empty space. Your friend will understand if you’re at a loss for words, because most likely, they are too. It’s not as important that you have the perfect thing to say. It’s more important that you show up and care to listen.
“Why don’t you…?”
“Why are you…?”
“Why aren’t you…?”
Please resist the temptation to offer advice or judgment on how your friend is handling their child’s diagnosis. Until you’ve experienced someone’s exact situation with their exact life experience up until that point, you have no way of knowing how you would respond. If you feel that your friend is in shock, you don’t need to point that out to them. Shock is our mind’s way of protecting itself, and it’s not helpful to ask your friend to take down the walls before they’re ready. If you observe what looks like anger, let them be angry. If you think they’ve been sad for too long, do things to remind them you care, but don’t imply that they should have moved on.
“How have you been handling this?”
“What has been hard?”
“How can I pray?”
“How can I help?”
The effects of childhood cancer on a parent can last a lifetime, and the best way you can support your family member or friend is to be a listening ear—for as long as it takes. When you promise to pray for your friend and their child, follow through. And send them reminders that you’re praying often. Random texts, cards and Starbucks gift cards with a simple “I’m praying” or “I’m here” message go a long way.
One note about “How can I help?”:
The most practical way you can frame this question is by getting specific about your offers of help.
“What night can I drop off dinner this week?”
“When can I come mow your lawn / clean your house / entertain your kids?”
So many people make offers of help out of good intentions, but ultimately those offers end up empty. Don’t leave the burden on your friend to tell you what they need, when they need it. When you take the initiative and show that you’re serious about being truly helpful, it will free your friend to receive the help they most certainly need.
At the end of the day, DO say something.
As parents share their experiences during our Common Ground time at Lighthouse, sure, there is shared laughter at some of the clueless things caring family and friends have said in an attempt to be helpful. But those aren’t the stories that bring the box of tissues around the circle. The words that hurt most were the ones never spoken—the family members who pretended that nothing hard was happening, or the friends who disappeared when the diagnosis came.
Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from saying something: especially those most treasured words:
“I am sorry, and I am here.”