Ten Dos and Don’ts When Someone You Know Becomes Seriously Ill

I was having a trawl through my collection of papers relating to cancer support recently and came across this one, which one of our members passed around. The original was published in the US, in the online newsletter of CarePages. It offers pointers on what (and what not) to say/do at a time when we can find ourselves lost for words – or actions – when receiving news of a serious illness.

I’ve tweaked some of the suggestions, using the experience of our own group and taking into account some of the cultural differences between the US and Europe (where we are based).  In any case, not all of the suggestions will be right for you and those you know; every person and every situation is unique. Maybe you’d like to make modifications and/or add your own suggestions, using the comments facility.

1) Do something, say something

Even saying “I don’t know what to say or do” tells the person you care and that you made the effort to communicate this. Be brave, risk stumbling over your words rather than allow someone to think you’re ignoring or avoiding them

2) Do encourage spirit and strength and efforts

Don’t just say “a positive attitude is everything” [see also this related piece on The Perils and Pitfalls of Positive Thinking]

3) Do offer to communicate on that person’s behalf, if he/she is open to the idea

Help create a CarePage, for example, or write a blog, or set up an e-mailing list to pass on news

4) Do allow the person to ‘set the mood’ of the conversation

If someone wants to laugh, or rage, or cry – go with it. Don’t impose your mood or your fears

5) Do remind them how special they are, how they matter in the world, in your life

Don’t offer clichés or belief/values-based judgements like “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” or “God moves in mysterious ways”

6) Do bring stuff, especially appetising, delicious food

Don’t bring anything too complicated, label the dish with the number of people it serves and give reheating instructions if necessary. Prefer a throw-away container or tray to a beautiful ovenproof casserole/glass dish – they’ll have to remember whose dish is which and restore it to its owner

7) Do include the person in social or other invitations – anything they might be interested in or able to attend

Don’t exclude them from invitations just because they are ill – they are the best people to decide if they’re up to it or not

8) Do acknowledge physical changes rather than just ignoring them

This is a tricky one, but if you know the person well and feel comfortable addressing physical changes directly rather than glossing over them/pretending they’re not there, you might say, for example, “You’ve lost weight but you’re looking good” or [if you know they have a wig] “I can’t believe it’s a wig – they got your hair cut/colour so perfectly”. Don’t gaze meaningfully at the body part that’s been operated. And avoid telling someone going through chemo or radiotherapy that they look “radiant”

9) Do offer specific help

“Can I drive you to hospital/chemo/radiotherapy this week?” or “Can I pick up the kids from school?” are better than an ambiguous “You will let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, won’t you?”

10) Do ask sincerely and specifically about what the person is going through, and let them talk details if they want

Don’t talk about “your cousin who beat cancer” [and had a completely different disease], or a friend of yours who had “just the same thing and died”. Everyone’s experience is unique. Let them own it.


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