I have a list in my head of who said what when they heard that I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. There were those whose words, presence and actions were real comforts. Then there were those who probably meant well, but totally missed the mark — and they are the reason for this list. To be sure, talking about a terminal diagnosis is one of the most emotionally fraught conversations you’ll ever have. It is devastating to hear from a loved one that they are dying. How you react to the news matters, yet most of us have no idea what to say when somebody we love shares their tragic news. In that spirit, I offer my own personal don’ts and dos.
DON’T say “let me know what you need.”
A generalized “call me for anything” is nice to hear, but understand that those of us who are really sick can only tolerate certain people washing our hair or driving us from a chemo session as we barf in a bucket en route. A good thing to text or email would be: “If there was one thing I could do today in your house or garden that would be helpful, what would it be?” and then be prepared to do it. Empty offers are just cruel.
Oh, and DON’T say nothing.
Saying nothing in the face of this sort of news is essentially selfish. Better to be too loving than slink away into your own fear of saying the wrong thing. It isn’t about you, sunshine.
DO make sure you ask if they can handle flowers or scent of any kind before showing up with lilies — or spritzed with Chanel No. 5.
Many medications create bizarre and shifting sensitivities, most of them to smells and flavours. Perfumes, flowers, cotton candy and even Spaghetti sauce have sent me to the bowl for a gag.
DON’T pelt them with 20 questions.
I know that for some people getting all the gory details is the only way they can absorb the news. But detailed questions can be exhausting to answer. Never, never ask how much time they have left. There is a really good chance that, like me, I told the doctor I didn’t want his estimate. A good question might be “What is the plan for your treatment?” then let them talk.
DO notice when they are tired, and leave.
Are they blinking longer? Shifting uncomfortably? Maybe they don’t want to admit being tired or unable to stay up. Notice, and then make a loving and speedy exit.
DON’T touch them without permission.
Sound strange? Consider this: Maybe they are just barely holding it together and leaning on you in that moment might result in a meltdown they can’t bear. Depending on your relationship, you might want to ask them if they would like a hug, and be ok with whatever their answer is.
DO let them know they are loved (idiosyncrasies and all).
Nothing made me happier than people finding ways to make me feel valued — one friend bought me a frame with a wine-stained page in it that read “Write drunk, edit sober,” and another brought me a “Wonder Woman” blanket. The most empathic ones know to spend time reminiscing with me, and not to talk too much about the future.
Lastly, DO manage your emotions.
You are hurting — it’s understandable. But please don’t burst into tears. That puts on the onus on the terminally ill person to comfort you. Just no. Unless you are their child, spouse, or mother you need to be there for them and not indulge in your own emotional drama.
Magnolia Ripkin is sort of like your mouthy aunt who drinks too much and tells you how to run your life, except funny… well mostly funny…like a cold glass of water in the face. She writes a flagrantly offensive blog at Magnolia Ripkin Advice Blog, answering pressing questions about business, personal development and parenting. She is the Editor in Chief at BluntMoms. Other places to find her: Huffington Post, The Mighty and Modern Loss. You can also check her out in ”I Just Want To Be Alone,” and “Martinis and Motherhood, Tales of Wonder, Woe and WTF.”