I am mortified to think back on certain situations or recall “those” conversations that I had with hurting people where I just showed up and completely blew it! Empathetic conversation is a gift to someone with cancer yet it is often exchanged for overused platitudes and failed sympathetic offerings. Can you remember a time in your life when your mouth was moving faster than your brain?
Insert Size 8 foot in mouth! Right here!
Oh boy! There are too many times to even count, right?
Words Carry Power
We have all been on the giving and receiving end of cringe worthy sentiments that cause our blood to boil and cause our hearts to have the overwhelming desire to throat punch the well-intentioned giver of unwarranted advice or empty, “feel good” phrases! Hopefully, I’m not alone in this. I am going to go out on a limb and say that Christians are often times the worst offenders!
No judgement here. I will leave all conviction to the Holy Spirit!
Words carry power. They can breathe life into our souls or arrest our hearts.
But, before we can grow, we must get honest, fast. Conversations occur constantly and chances are there is a hard one lurking right around the corner. We need to ready ourselves.
Why We Should Pay Attention to our Words
It wasn’t until my mom was diagnosed with Glioblastoma brain cancer that I became hyper aware and probably hyper sensitive to the words I offered up to others and to the ones I was on the receiving end of, especially during hard conversations concerning cancer and caregiving. We are surrounded by beautiful people who want nothing more than to say the right things, at just the right time, that will bless, comfort and encourage. However, when the moment arrives, we get uncomfortable, tongue-tied and we resort to those over-used, insensitive platitudes, that leave the receiver feeling empty, misunderstood or even hurt.
Please hear me my heart. I am not pointing a finger at anyone else when I know there are four more pointed back in my direction. One of the blessings of walking through a hard season is the gift of perspective that you get. This is one of those valuable lessons that God has gently and mercifully taught me on my personal cancer caregiving road.
Let’s take a look at ways to say “this,” not “that.
Empathetic Conversation Switches
Don’t Say: “I know just how you feel.”
Unless you have personally heard the words “you have cancer,” and you are that person, than you do not know just how that person feels. Everyone’s experience with cancer is different, no one journey is the same.
Try Saying: “I care about you and I want to help,” or “I can’t imagine how you are feeling but I would like to know.”
Don’t Say: “Don’t worry.”
This is a biggie in Christian circles. We are human after all.
Try Saying: “I know things are overwhelming right now but please know that I am here for you.”
Be realistic and recognize the person’s humanity. Don’t downplay their fears and concerns. Help them create a space where they feel safe and are given permission to truly experience their feelings. Sharing Scripture with someone is a gift. There is no greater truth and treasure than the inherent Word of God. However, pray for discernment concerning your timing.
Don’t Say: “Be strong.”
What does this even mean or look like? Should you wrap them up in a superman cape or put their picture on the front of a Wheaties box? Sometimes being strong is exhausting. If they don’t feel strong, that does not mean they aren’t fighting hard enough. People with cancer are bombarded with hero and warrior imagery to inspire, encourage and empower them for what lies ahead. This is not bad, matter of fact, it really helps some individuals. But, keep in mind that it does not bring comfort to everyone. What happens on the hard days when the person does not feel strong or they don’t feel like they are “living up” to the fighter/warrior expectations? Cancer is draining enough. Let’s not put more pressure on our loved ones by giving them unrealistic expectations that they feel obligated to live up to.
“I understand there will be good days and there will be really challenging days.”
This acknowledges the reality of a cancer journey while not squashing someone’s vulnerability. Another way to create a safe space for someone is to affirm them by saying, “I admire the grace you face each day with.” This keeps the door open for conversation and gives the person permission to be true to their feelings and protects their vulnerability.
Don’t Say: “You’ll beat this”
How do you know? God is the only one who has our days numbered. There are no guarantees with cancer. Sharing this sentiment often times comes from a well- meaning place but is also born out of our own fears. When we say this, it can give off the impression that we don’t understand the severity of their situation or that we are trying to minimize their feelings. What happens when they don’t get better? Does this mean they didn’t fight hard enough?
Can I be real and very honest with you right now? I DETEST hearing people say “_____ lost their battle with cancer.” Please, stop saying this! This puts the cancer outcome on the “effort” of the patient during their time with cancer. I personally feel it is disrespectful and dishonoring of the individual’s life though I realize the intent behind it is nothing short of a failed attempt at being loving and honoring of someone’s life.
Try Saying: “I’m on your side on the good days and through the bad days.”
This tells the person that you understand that this a journey and that it’s going to be different from day to day. You are assuring them that they do not have to face the upcoming days alone and that no matter what, you are there. No one can predict the future. Don’t make promises that aren’t yours to keep.
Don’t Say: “I haven’t stopped crying since I heard the news.”
Before having a conversation with someone who has cancer or who is caregiving for someone who does, please do everyone a favor and process your own feelings ahead of time. Do not burden them with your fears and feelings or make them incur guilt for your emotions.
Try Saying: “I feel awful that you are having to go through this.”
This keeps the focus on the person and their individual experience. It also gives them permission and the freedom to express their authentic feelings or to just be still.
Don’t Say: “Be grateful you don’t have “____”
Comparisons are never helpful. People do not need to be reminded in the moment that things could always be worse. Comparisons are belittling and dangerous territory.
Try Saying: “Is there something you would like to share with me about your cancer?
If you are comfortable, I would like to know more about what you are going through or what your experience has been thus far.”
Don’t Say: “Let me know if there is something I can do for you.”
This is a vague statement and often times can be more burdensome than helpful.
Try Saying: “I’m going to bring your family a meal on Tuesday night unless there is a better day for you.”
The more specific you can be, the more helpful it truly is. Be willing to be flexible and try not to take a declined offer personally.
Don’t Say: Avoid saying nothing at all.
Please, never ignore a friend or loved one even if you don’t know what to say. Having cancer is hard and isolating enough. Saying nothing at all can often be interrupted as a lack of concern.
Try Saying: “I don’t have the right words to say but please know that I am here for you and I am not going anywhere.”
Take a lesson out of your childhood playbook, “honesty is the best policy.”
Don’t Say: “I know someone with that cancer…and they died.”
Try your best to avoid comparisons, especially ones with negative experiences or outcomes.
Try Saying: “If you would like to speak to someone that has had experience with this particular kind of cancer, I would be happy to connect you with them.”
This lets your loved one know that if or when they are open to talking with someone, they can call on you to make the necessary connection.
Don’t Say: “Why do you think this happened? Does it run in your family?”
The “why” does not really matter as much as the “what” do we do next. Many times we will never truly know why the cancer occurred. In an effort to make sense of cancer, we try to connect the dots or find something or someone to blame. Even if you have a cancer “theory,” keep it to yourself.
Try Saying: “I am sorry this is happening. How can I best support you moving forward?”
None of us go through life perfectly, knowing exactly what to say or when to say it. Even people, like myself, who are no strangers to hard seasons, always have a perfectly crafted empathetic response to offer. We are not experts on someone else or their circumstances. No matter how many things you or your situation have in common with another, never assume or act like you know best.
Everyone’s journey and their experiences are as unique as their own fingerprint.
Always be honest. If you blow it, own it and ask for forgiveness.
Commit to responding more empathetically the next time.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of some painful platitudes, please try to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best of intentions.
Extend grace. You never know when you will be in need of it yourself.
“I give grace because I so desperately need it.” (Lysa Terkeurst)