Not sure what to say or do to a family battling cancer or any terminal illness? Look no further! After dealing with canned responses during my mom’s convalescence and funeral, I decided to put together a list of do’s and don’ts. It is our family’s hope that sharing these faux pas will avoid others pain, shedding light on the bitter taste these platitudes can leave in the mouth of those on the receiving end.
1. “It’s [insert deity here]’s will…”
Telling a person that God willed them to get sick, suffer, and possibly die before fulfilling their perceived mission on Earth is not only cruel but completely out of line. Being told your days are numbered comes with great shock and unmeasurable trauma for those involved. It may take months, years and, for survivors, decades to come to terms with the diagnosis. Read the room, ask politely if they are believers, and of what religion or creed, before dropping this gem. Just because it rings true to your beliefs it doesn’t mean your comment will be well received. Avoid alienating others at this difficult time. They don’t need to deal with more unintended drama. Instead offer up words of solace and skip stating the obvious, nor implying this road is the result of past sins or a divine plan.
2. “A miracle can still happen…”
Statistics and science usually take care of this hopeful outlook fast for those willing to understand they are the norm and not the exception. Yes, a miracle may occur, a cure can be found in time, but the probability is very low at this stage. A panacea is highly unlikely. It’s good to be optimistic, to provide the family with studies, remedies, and clinical trials to consider. Keep them upbeat and focused on the treatments and protocols enacted by the medical staff but do not feed false hope. Some patients make peace quickly with [God’s] will and are looking forward to eternal slumber as they feel they lived a good life. See item 10 for more reasons why ignoring the inevitable isn’t always a good plan.
3. “Karma works in mysterious ways/ this too shall pass…”
There’s zero comfort in these words. None. Regardless of faith, of optimistic outlooks, getting sick and dying isn’t necessarily going to result in better days or opportunities for those involved. No parent, sibling, nephew/niece, grandkid, spouse or significant other wants to believe losing their cancer warrior will lead to a better outcome for those left behind. Being chosen to die, to leave everything you love behind, dreams, etc., is a tough pill to swallow. Mysterious or not, the truth is the survivors will live on with a big huge hole in their souls, carrying a loss until the day they too die. It’s painful af. “Why me?” will trump “Why not me?” every single time. Avoid stating the obvious, again. There’s nothing worse than feeling despair because you don’t know the reason why you deserve this. No one deserves this. Period. We move away but never on.
4. “Some good may come out of this/ it will all work out for the best…”
Sleepless nights. Watching a person go from 100% healthy to bedridden. Holidays without them. Insurance money. Where’s the good in any of that? Even those who create foundations or scholarships to honor their warriors will tell you they’d rather have the person alive and well. No amount of money in the world can replace what has been lost. Yes, there’s some satisfaction in helping others but there’s no redeeming quality or thought that can placate the void caused by their departure. Caregivers and cancer patients alike have higher death and suicide rates than their healthy counterparts; they’re exhausted, spent and lucky if they only get a mild depression. Not all situations have a ray of light. Some are just plain miserable and unbearable. (For more information click here.)
5. “You look like crap/fat/skinny/unwell…”
No sh@$ Sherlock! Do you think a terminally ill person or their peeps don’t know this already? Battling cancer here! There is a difference between asking how the team collectively feels and blurting out rude comments about how bad their hair looks, thoughts on weight gain/loss, perceived success of their children, or the error of their political platforms/affiliations, to name a few. Keep things positive and lighthearted. Caregivers and doctors are fighting hard to provide the warrior with a better quality of life – all of them are most likely self conscious enough as it is. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Silence is welcomed.
6. “If there is anything I can do…“
May seem odd but many people make offers that go unfulfilled because they don’t really mean they’ll help with anything. Know your boundaries and communicate them instead of offering this blanket statement. Be specific. If you can take a shift at the hospital, cook a meal for the family, clean, run errands, etc., let them know ASAP. Families may need money, time off, a shoulder to cry on at a moments notice; when you are conveniently unavailable to provide such, the emotional toll grows and the baggage it generates can complicate an already impossible situation. Be genuine and sincere with your offers. Act quickly and with upmost respect. Never leave the promise hanging. Now it’s not the time to put selfishness and convenience first, especially when you claimed these folks mattered enough to lend a hand.
7. Bring surprise gifts or items to the hospital, home or funeral.
Flowers and remembrance items have long been a part of visiting etiquette, but they aren’t necessarily required or welcomed. Culturally, the family or infirm may acquiesce, accepting or complimenting the item as they internally ponder how to best dispose of it without hurting your feelings. If you aren’t comfortable enough to ask what’s truly needed or appreciated, it may be best to skip the gesture. Never assume. Don’t take it personally if you are asked for your presence or support. When there are bills to pay and a wake to host/clean up after, these items may become clutter, creating additional work for the family. As the saying goes, you can’t take it with you when you are gone; most items will lose value or meaning once the person dies. Thankfully, only the love remains.
8. Inserting yourself into the terminally ill person’s narrative.
Do your best to remain an observer, a neutral party to the events as they unfold. Chemo and/or palliative care drugs, plus other psychological/physiological ailments can lead to memory loss and confusion. The person may be your best friend, family member or lost long love but that doesn’t mean they’ll care about your feelings or recall you. Their convalescence and/or wake are not the right places to demand attention, to grind axes or beg for redemption. Logistically, it may be too late to get the kind of closure or validation you need from them. Don’t be the dude/dudette spreading gossip or vicious lies about the deceased – their family won’t appreciate it or you. Their last thoughts or memories should be of their loved one, not of an insecure stranger’s drama. Get over yourself!
9. Offering unsolicited advice or criticism.
Everyone thinks they are entitled to share their opinions, Monday quarterbacking after the fact, or that their unsolicited observations matter. Newsflash, they don’t! You aren’t the one operating under duress or pressure, literally making life and death decisions in real time to determine what is best for the cancer patient with limited circumstances. Don’t question or criticize the person or their family’s decisions, even if you have done differently in the same situation. It’s their life, not yours – their choice and prerogative. Only offer information up when prompted, framing altruistic concerns in active, non passive aggressive, clear language. Whatever you do, stay in your lane! Offer support, not judgement. Win-win!
10. Ignoring the inevitable: Terminal means incurable.
Death is a scary subject for many, taboo even, but it is a certainty that needs to be considered and discussed while the person is still with us. Postponing last will and testament generation/updates, and delaying medical power of attorney procedures will cause more problems to the heirs than completing the urgent task while the person still possesses cognitive function and discernment. Above all, don’t lie of sugar coat the truth; don’t tell a person they are rallying when they aren’t leading to unnecessary disappointment and anxiety. If you are in denial yourself, pray/meditate, do whatever you need to do to get ready for the next steps with a healthy level of optimism. Do your research before blindly feeding hope. Find solace in the memories and make plans to honor their journey. Face the sorrow head on and lean into others for support. Look for grief counseling experts or support groups. Be present, don’t leave anything for tomorrow that can be done today. And above all, love them until you can’t physically love them anymore.
If you’ve experienced any of these and would like to share, comment below. I’m interested in learning what else can be added to the list for future etiquette rules discussions.
Stay strong! Big hug!