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By Melissa Young

I have a friend who was just diagnosed with cancer. We no longer live close to her (we moved last year), and I heard about it from a mutual friend. I don’t think my friend wants to be viewed solely as a cancer patient, as sick, as dying. And while most of us are sick in some way and all of us are dying, the immediacy of her situation makes it become the prominent characteristic of her life. And I wish it didn’t, because her life has been amazing.

I feel myself at a loss for words, and it’s not an uncommon feeling for me when I hear about the difficulties that others are struggling with. I want to say something–something that will help, or at least something that won’t inadvertently rub salt into a wound.

So tell me, dear readers, what kinds of words have landed on your ears like the balm of Gilead, and which have felt like salt. I know that every situation is unique and people will respond differently, even if the words are the same, but I’d like to know what has helped you in times of sorrow.

About Melissa Young

(Emerita) is a native of Utah and lives in Cache Valley, Utah, with her husband and three of her four children in their emptying nest. She has an MA in TESOL from Brigham Young University and currently volunteers with the English Learning Center.

29 thoughts on “Speechless”

  1. When you next talk with her, ask her if she wants to talk about it. If she doesn't, talk about something else. Don't let it be the defining characteristic of your relationship. I've lost friendships over this issue because some people can't seem to talk to me about anything else.

    Tell her you love her, but be the same person you were before you knew. If you weren't gushy and lovey before, it doesn't feel necessary to be so now. It's hard, but let her know you care about her and then move on – unless of course she says she really needs to unload about it.

    That's just my own personal opinion, though. It's what I want, so I'm sure it's not what everyone wants.

  2. I chose not to tell people about my cancer because I didn't want to them over react toward me and my family. Sometimes people can get very involved in your condition and just turn it into a real issue. When some found out they would tell you stories of their experiences or someone they knew who died, etc. People really are not very good at just lettinh it pass and not say or talk to someone about the issue. IMO, just write a nice note or card saying you were thinking about them and say you'll remember them in our prayers. They will know that you mean well and when they want to talk they will open up. But do pray for them by name and put their name in the Temple. Give it some time and see what happens.

  3. When I had cancer (2x) I did not tell very many people at all. Word got around, and that was ok. People try not to act different, but they do. Don't ask "How are you alot?" that is a hard one to answer.
    Thinking of you cards are great – never Get well soon – and when people do this – you know they are available if you want to talk.
    The biggest think I always appreciated is people talking about themselves, so I could remember and think about something other than ME – sooooooo important. Some people will say – "well I won't complain considering the circumstances" – if you complained last week about it – share it this week too – life is what I craved – not talk of sickness and death! And if you complain – maye i will safe to also!

  4. I am getting better, I think, at being more sensitive when talking to people dealing with hard things. But it's still so difficult for me to know what to say. I am learning to say, "I'm so sorry about….." and to be sympathetic and open to talking about it, if they want to, and changing the subject, if they want to, but I have made some very insensitive comments because of my own social awkwardness. I'll never forget the gaffe I committed when I was a receptionist in my father's office (although I console myself with the thought that I was only 20—a young 20). A lady in our ward's husband died suddenly; her husband had been my father's patient. She called the office to cancel her husband's appointment and get his records (because he had died!). I had answered the phone in my usual perky receptionist voice. When she said, "Hi, this is Joyce Stevens" (or whatever her name was) I just froze. So I said, still in my perky voice, "Oh hello. How are you?" She ignored my question and said, "I'm sure you heard that my husband passed away." And—this is the part that still makes me blush with shame—I said, in that same perky voice, "Yes, I did!" and then continued with the conversation. Awkward! I didn't even say, "I'm sorry." Hopefully I've gotten better.

  5. I'll tell you, I hate it when people tell me to feel better soon, or hope you get over it quick, that kind of thing. It just reminds me, quite painfully, that I'm not going to get over it.

    And Traci, I'm with you. I hate that question, "How are you?" especially when it's totally loaded with urgency and inquisition. "How are you?" with head tilted in close, eyes boring into my head. AAACK!

  6. I wish more people recognized the need to be able to experience the raw emotion of sadness, sorrow, anger, pain, fear and grief when something bad happens. Acknowledge the cancer/illness/trial and be available as a friend in whatever way is needed. The words needn't be flashy or ornate–just establish the fact that you'll be there as a friend. Don't excuse away the hardship or grief because it feels better when you're not the one experiencing it. We need to give outlet to the vulnerable frailty that is part of our humanness. I just posted about this exact topic. It's okay to dwell a bit longer in the hard place, instead of exusing it away to hurry and get to peace. It's a journey to get there. It shouldn't be rushed.

  7. A few monthes after the death of my brother, I went to visit my sister-in-law. At church everyone was looking at me and not saying anything, probably not knowing what to say, except for the one person who asked," How is Bobby's sister?" It made me feel so good that someone acknowledged me as his sister. And after his death, people kept telling me that I would see him again,I know that, I wanted people to know how much I missed him.

  8. You know I don't ask – how are you? – anytime in life anymore – it could be such a beehive for everyone involved. Instead I like to say – Hi, Great to see you!

    Also I always think of my elderly cousin in church who said that if someone asks how you are, you are to say – Great, and I am sure you are too.
    Someone said – but what if you're not? Then you were supposed to say – Good and getting better, like you I'm sure.
    She was overwhelmingly positive at times.
    When someone asked her how she was and for the 1st time anyone had ever heard her say – Good and getting better – we knew she would not be with us long.

    But on the other hand – sometimes there is a real need for the raw truth.
    Truth is Beauty – Beauty is truth.

  9. I like the raw truth…but maybe that's just me.

    I'm no expert, but when my friend said "I'm over it" to me when I was going through my divorce and didn't want to talk about it — well, let's just say we aren't much of friends anymore. Which is sad because we really were great friends. I just am a talker and needed to find people who probably were over it, but didn't mind listening again and again.

    I think its hard because you just never know. Or at least I never know.

  10. You have gotten some extremely good advice, so I will just add one tiny bit that seems obvious, but yet so many people fall into this trap. Don't ever say "I know how you feel." Even if you have had the same exact cancer in the same exact stage of your life, no one knows how that person is feeling. No one. This one was a real sore spot for me when I was dealing with my own issues…

  11. Wow- this is a hard one. One of my best friends since high school had an aggressive cancer and passed away two years ago. I think a lot depends on your relationship with the person. In my case, we were close so the cancer was "out there" as a topic, but it was one of many things we talked about- kids, family, husbands, memories.

    I guess it is like traci said- "Life is what I craved". The cancer is only one facet of your friend- just like any other trial like marital problems, illness, family issues- it isn't all of them.

    I like the idea of a card or email letting them know you heard, that you are sorry, keeping her in your prayers and available for whatever help is wanted or needed. Then follow up with your usual friendly things- don't hesitate to tell her about your kids and life and don't forget to ask about hers. Take your cues from your friend on how she wants to "deal".

  12. When I'm the one facing the challenge, I appreciate it when my friends talk about what we would normally discuss – books, recipes, our gardens, places to go, things our kids are doing. It helps me to remember that life is going on outside of my trial. If I want to talk about my challenges, I'll bring it up and my closest friends will listen, even if they have heard it multiple times before. A couple of them would even ask me "How are you TODAY?". Because we were so close, I was comfortable answering them honestly, even if I having a horrible day.

    On the other hand, I'd get annoyed when people I wasn't very close to would ask how I was. Most probably meant well, but the ward busy bodies and tongue waggers drove me nuts! I'd much rather a smile or pat on the shoulder than an inquisition…Who wants to tell their sad story over and over and over again?

  13. I've learned a lot from reading your posts — thank you!

    I also learned a lot from reading the blogs of two dear sisters who were working through major health issues. Seeing their faith, being able to cry and deal with the empathy I felt privately, helped me not fall apart or gush as much in their presence, helping me. Perhaps having such a blog would minimize the retelling?

    Writing that helped me realize that, as important as it is to be sensitive to those who are ill, those who are ill need to remember that those closest around them are going through the stages of grief, too — be patient with their struggles as they come to grips with your illness.

    Thank you all for sharing your insights — with the Spirit's help, I'll remember them so I can be more sensitive!

  14. If you know the person well enough to generally say "Hi, how are you?" and have a chat, keep doing the same. Avoid the "how are you?" if you're uncomfortable, or don't wait for the (usually automatic) reply and just go straight into your chat.

    If you know the person well, be honest the first time you see them after you've heard whatever the awful news is. The best comments I had from people after they'd heard of my situation were "Oh, Sel, that SUCKS!", "I am so, so sorry" and "What? WHAT? Oh that IDIOT!" Honest answers, definately not "politically correct" or overly sensitive, just the the true feelings of my friends.

    I agree with others' comments – don't dwell on the situation. Let the person talk about it, but if they don't want to, let it slide. Particularly if it's a personal situation (not health), don't raise up your own questions, insecurities etc in detail in the first few days/weeks – it doesn't help. Talk about whatever you used to talk about Before Incident so they feel like a friend not an illness/situation.

    Pray that you won't be insensitive,or that you'll have words/actions that will help, and apologise to the person if you think you were insensitive.

    Most of all, try to see and remember the person, not the label.

  15. Melissa–I am so sorry.

    The best words are those straight from the heart: There are no words. I'm sorry. I love you. What can I do?

    As for that last one, I've been meaning to post about what I learned from our recent experience with a cancer diagnosis. Often people are so shell-shocked they're not even sure what they need or how to articulate it, but I will tell you that in addition to words, it's important to do something. Even with the best of treatments and outcomes, there can be dark days. Every act of love and kindness is a ray of light through those dark days. A note, a flower, a hug, a loaf of bread–even the most simple of gestures is a blessing. And prayers, too. I have a strong testimony of the power of prayer not just for the outcome, but for strength and comfort throughout the journey.


  16. A few thoughts: Sometimes people give advice or talk about others they know who've had (usually bad) outcomes when fighting cancer (or other illnesses). The former is not helpful unless the advice is requested. The latter usually invites negative energy. A few even say, "If you have enough faith, you've get well." That can be very hurtful, of course, because both those with and without faith in God suffer.

    Pure, unconditional love is healing for anyone–those who are sick and those who are well. As we radiate the pure love of Christ, we allow others to feel His love as well. I've had several very close friends who have fought cancer. Some have lost the battle. We laughed and cried together through the challenges. I was sensitive to their needs, visited when they needed and wanted me, and gave them space when they wanted to be alone. Sometimes the words "I love you, and I care deeply about you" sincerely spoken and humbly received can be the sweetest experience ever.

  17. I am a 5 year breast cancer survivor. Just be a friend…I was just happy to talk about fun things and just about anything…but I was happy to cry sometimes. I forgot that I was bald, when I opened the door to my visiting teacher…We just laughed about it…I guess my advice to just be a friend and be there like you wish someone would be there for you, as you never know when you may be the one in that position.

  18. Sometimes I just ache for how hard mortality is. Today is one of those days. I'm so sorry to hear about your friend.

    As someone who struggles w/ chronic illness, I really appreciate those who ask, "How are you, really?" and who are really willing to listen. Even as I don't want to be defined by my illness, the reality is that it DOES define much of my life and for me, it helps when people are willing to engage that part of my life with me, repetitive though it may be. (Ex. of what not to say, "Well, I've thought of asking how you are, but knew the answer would be the same, so I didn't ask.")

    As a general comment, I'd rather have someone say something than ignore it, for fear of saying the wrong thing. That awkwardness can be, imo, worse than saying the wrong thing! Sometimes I feel like there are people who will deliberately avoid talking to me about my health stuff. To me, it's like when someone dies. I have heard the worst thing you can do is say nothing, and I have felt that way, too, while mourning my health.

    So, I'd say, just say something, and start from there. You can pray to be able to read her cues well, and to be sensitive. I have found more often than not that people usually respond to geniune efforts to reach out and acknowledge the difficulty, even if not done perfectly.

    But as a side note, also realize that you can't necessarily read her mind, and she will have responsibility to respond in appropriate ways as well. (In other words, you may do all the right things and still 'say the wrong thing' — but that may be more about where she is than what you have done. — Be patient with her, because she may not always know what she needs.) So, in a sense, I'd say just be yourself and do your best and pray that she can know and feel your heart.

    I think a given to avoid, though, is medical advice. Especially with something like this where the docs really do have a pretty good grip on things, making suggestions about this or that, unless directly asked, in my experience, usually adds noise. (It's already so hard to know what route to take when making medical decisions.) (The exception is when it's shared in such a context of love and deliberate pondering/praying/"thinking of you and can't get you out of my mind" kind of heartfelt sharing (Melissa M., that was for you — I still am honored that you would call and share, because I felt your heart, and pretty much every time I see your name or pic I think of that and what it meant.)

    Sorry for the long response.

  19. m&m, I'm so glad you felt the genuine love and concern behind my rather out-of-the-blue phone call, because that's how I felt, even though I didn't know you at the time.:) You are kind to include that caveat. BTW, I always love hearing your thoughts.

  20. I always just ask people what they'd like. Basically say, "I'm at a loss of words. I am thinking and praying for you often. I care and want to help in anyway possible." And ask what she wants you to do. Talk to her about or not talk to her about it; that sort of thing.


    "What's it like?"

    After 20 years of MS, my girlfriend Anne has only heard these words one time–the most validating thing anyone had ever said to her. She told me approximately this:

    Asking "How are you doing" seems to imply "how well are you coping?" It puts the person on the spot, pressured to be competent. To be "fine" instead of needy.

    But asking "what's it like" allows the other person to describe the hard parts of the challenge in a more objective, impersonal way. It sort of acknowledges that the trial is separate from you personally. People can still respond casually if they want to ("not too bad") but it opens the door for them to say, "you know, it's really, really hard" without saying "I'm not DOING WELL." It allows them to be an authority on their own experience. It allows the asker to learn.

    "What's it like to have M.S.?"
    "what's it like for you at the end of a day?"
    "What's it like to lose a parent?"

    Thanks for the post and open comments!

  22. This sounds like a fun book – just like the others I have. I'll have to order this one if I don't win. . . . keeping my fingers crossed!!

  23. Recently I have learned that offering ‘perspective’ is typical for members during trialing times. This is when people give proverbs often found on vinyl signs at Deseret Book like ‘no one ever said it would be easy- just worth it!’ or ‘families are forever.’ You know, just trying to give you “perspective” to the situation you are already fully immersed in.

    Big No-no.

    Just listen when your friend wants to talk and write a note that says you are thinking about her. Seriously, five words that do wonders for the spirit:
    Today, I’m thinking about you.

    It’s the “balm.”

  24. I've never had cancer before, but when I've gone through difficulties I have really appreciated others love and sincerity.

    During a miscarriage, my sister in law's very sincere "I have no idea whatthe right thing is to say here, but I really want you to know that I'm sorry and I love you." was so healing. It was her love that I was craving and that came through so clearly. The words really didn't matter.

  25. Wow. I was going to write my own little bit of advice, based on my experiences after losing my baby boy two years ago. But after reading what is already here, I am so impressed that I don't think I will.
    Joy Lensky in particular has a gem. I will try to remember that for when I want to know what to say to someone in a painful situation. That still would be a wonderful question for me to hear.
    Okay, now I did think of one particular thing that has helped me. When someone was completely honest with their feelings about my loss, without trying at all to help me feel better, that's what helped.
    For example:
    "I cried when I heard about your baby." (that was from one of the Primary kids).
    "I think if that happened to me I would kill myself." (from a German friend)
    If I had never been through the experience, I never would have guessed such words could be comforting. But to know that others cried when I cried, and that the feelings I was having of no longer wanting to live were understandable and mentionable, really helped.
    So, I guess my advice is. . . honesty. Don't try to glaze over the loss. Nothing at all can make such things hurt less than they just do. But offering your honest feelings with love shows that your heart hurts right along with hers.

  26. In my experience, this is the time to listen. You don't have anything right to say until you understand how she is feeling (emotionally, spiritually, etc.) and what she needs. Probably what she needs from you is just love. I think listening gives a lot of love, and you'll learn about her other needs by listening too.

  27. It is so refreshing to read all of your comments, especially to know that you are wonderful supportive friends. It is rare to see so many compassionate people who are willing to uplift their suffering friends. I wish I had more people like you in my life.

  28. Thanks for all the great advice. I will try the "It's great to see you" next time I see my friend who recently finished her chemo.

    To anon: this is a wonderful group of women–and they are your friends! Just keep coming back. Faithful and supportive. My favorite place to go–especially if I'm feeling low.

  29. I stunbled on this quite unexpectedly and found myself pulled in by all the wonderful comments and replies to the question of 'what to say?'
    I am a single mother, breast cancer survivor, growing hair and pushing forward. Everyone has tales of horror to share with any kind of battle they go through – the struggle itself or dealing with insensitive -but well-meaning comments… I am blessed with a wonderful group of friends who became my guardians of the gate. They kept the ward and everyone else informed of my needs, my state-of-mind and state-of-being so I didn't have to cope with that. They literally guarded my home and kept nosey gossips away, and they sat with me while I laughed or cried or just needed someone to hug.
    The comments such as 'great to see you' 'how does it feel' and so on, are absolutely wonderful. I can't possibly improve on those, but I would like to share some of the things my students said that made me feel incredible!
    First day back to school with my suction machine in place and baggy clothes to hide the in-process reconstruction: 'hey miss! you really should about updating that wardrobe! We're gonna call you a skater!'
    'Miss – can we still hug you?'
    'Oh wow, does it still hurt?'
    Later, when I was losing my hair, I had the beautician just shave it off and my kids thought it was the coolest ever – a couple shaved their heads too. That meant more than any words anyone could have said. To be fair, a couple of my adult support group offered to shave theirs too, but I felt that was going too far.
    I guess the point I'm heading for is this: the honesty of my students was probably the best thing for me – no teary-eyed sympathy (although there were tears), no gushy stuff, just a lot of to-the-point comments that acknowledged I was going through a miserable time and then we moved on. There is always someone around who wants to dig for the dirt and wrench details out of you – if you are the friend of someone going through something horrific or trying, let THEM make the move to tell their sad story. You be the sunrise and rainbow – it is so important.


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