The phone rang. I had been home from the hospital a few hours and already people were calling. Hmm, did the surgeons insert a tracking device into me? I was finally home from the hospital after spending 4 days recovering and grieving from my surgery--I had part of my kidney removed due to kidney cancer. I knew people were concerned and I knew that I was not the only one trying to process the fact that I have kidney cancer.
I picked up the phone. I was thinking how nice it is that someone took time out of their day to find out how I was doing. We talked about how I was feeling and if I needed anything. I said I was doing okay, resting, and trying to be a good patient. Trust me, the good patient part has always been difficult for me because I am not used to people taking care of me, I am only used to taking care of others.
There were a couple of seconds of silence when I was asked if the pathology came back cancerous. I know this is the big question everyone has and one that will make people feel uncomfortable asking. I respond "yes" but explained that the surgeon is confident that he removed all the cancer cells. Then the unthinkable happened. The person said, "so glad you are doing well, thank goodness it wasn't breast cancer." WHAT THE .....? What makes having kidney cancer any different than breast cancer? How am I supposed to respond to that? I was speechless (very, very rare for me). All I could do was thank him for calling and get off the phone. Obviously my pain medication and complete surprise by that comment overwhelmed my usual quick retort.
The truth is simple. Everyone feels uncomfortable when they have to make that phone call or are face-to-face with someone who is grieving a loss whether it be a loved one, health issue, marriage, job, or anything else of great importance. There is an actual grieving process that people go through with a significant loss. Do I think that person who told me that I should be thankful it was not breast cancer was insensitive or oblivious to other peoples' feelings---absolutely not. I believe that people are so uncomfortable in these situations that they become tongue tied saying things that they do not mean. After all, we all have good intentions. All we want to do is comfort that person, let them know we care and be there for them always. Instead, due to our own uneasiness, we may say something that we think is comforting yet only upsets the person grieving. I decided it was time to spread the word. Here is my list of comments which should never be said to a grieving person:
1. Never tell someone that they are lucky they do not have something else. Whatever health issue that person has, they are trying to process it. They are not thinking of what they do not have, they are only concentrating on what they do have. Leave it at that.
2. God only gives you what you can handle. Yes, I have been told this many times from different people. What exactly does this mean? If I look or act like I am dealing well with my obstacles I should be looking forward to another new problem from God until I completely go crazy? Isn't inflammatory arthritis, crohn's, kidney cancer, my son's history of a brain tumor among other things enough?
3. What a long life that person had. When an older person dies, many people acknowledge the loss by saying this. While this comment is true, please remember that the person who passed is someone's parent, grandparent, -great-grandparent, friend. While the mourners were blessed with having so many years with their loved one, they still grieve that they no longer can share their lives with them.
4. You have so much to be thankful for. How is this comforting? People are well aware of the good things they have in their life. Remember, there is a process to mourning and telling someone all the good things they have is not part of that process.
5. You are better off without him. When someone's divorce is final, many people have said this, myself included. I recently came to this realization when a very good friend of mine's divorce became final. People know why they had to divorce that person, telling them that does not help at all. Remember, even though there were unforgivable occurrences that lead to divorce, there were good times throughout their marriage, too.
So now that we covered the "what not to say" items (please feel free to add others in the comments), I want to tell you what you should say that would never get you into trouble. Here is the only thing you need to say ever:
"I am so sorry to hear about (fill in). I know this is a difficult time for you and I am here to support you in anyway you need me to."
Of course you can add to this depending on your relationship with that person. With this statement you acknowledge all the important words needed to show your support with whatever loss that person experienced. Hopefully the next time you are in this situation you will be able to offer the words of comfort that you had hoped to.
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