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10 things you should never say to someone when they're sick

Date Posted: 10.08.2012

When I was diagnosed with cancer, the support of my friends was invaluable -- but I also learned that there are 10 things you should never, ever say to someone when they're sick. By Deborah Orr

What no one ever tells you about serious illness is that it places you at the centre of a maelstrom of concerned attention from family and friends. Of course it does. That's one of the nice things. It's actually the only nice thing. But it's also a rather tricky challenge, at a time when you may feel -- just slightly -- that you have enough on your plate.

Suddenly, on top of everything else, you are required to manage the emotional requirements of all those who are dear to you, and also, weirdly, one or two people who you don't see from one year to the next, but who suddenly decide that they really have to be at your bedside, doling out homilies, 24 hours a day.

The biggest shock, when I was diagnosed with cancer the summer before last, was observing that people can be quite competitive in their determination to "be there for you", and occasionally unable to hide their chagrin when some other chum has been awarded a sensitive role at a sensitive medical consultation. Nobody means to be intrusive or irritating. It's all done with the finest intentions. But, God, it's a pain. Yet by not saying 10 simple things, you too can be the friend in need that you want to be.

1 "I feel so sorry for you"

It's amazing, the number of people who imagine that it feels just great to be the object of pity. Don't even say "I feel so sorry for you" with your eyes. Don't say "I feel so sorry for you" with your hand either. When someone patted my thigh, or silently rested their paw on it, often employing the exasperating form of cranial communication known as "sidehead" at the same time, I actually wanted to deck them.

Do say: "I so wish you didn't have to go through this ghastly time." That acknowledges that you are still a sentient being, an active participant in your own drama, not just, all of a sudden, A Helpless Victim.

2 "If anyone can beat this, it's you"

Funnily enough, it's not comforting to be told that you have to go into battle with your disease, like some kind of medieval knight on a romantic quest.

Submitting to medical science, in the hope of a cure, is just that -- a submission. The idea that illness is a character test, with recovery as a reward for the valiant, is glib to the point of insult.

Do say: "My mum had this 20 years ago, and she's in Bengal now, travelling with an acrobatic circus." (Though not if that isn't true.)

3 "You're looking well"

One doesn't want to be told that one's privations are invisible to the naked eye. Anyway, one is never too ill to look in a mirror. I knew I looked like death warmed up, not least because I felt like death warmed up. Nobody wants to be patronised with ridiculous lies. They are embarrassing for both speaker and listener.

4 "You're looking terrible"

I know it sounds improbable. But people really did feel the need to reassure me that my hideousness was plain to see.

One person told me that while I'd put on a lot of weight, I'd of course be able to go on a diet as soon as I was better. In fact, I haven't gone on a diet. Somehow, being a size 10 doesn't seem tremendously important any longer. On the other hand, when I said: "Don't I look monstrous?" I was asking people to help me to laugh at myself -- which many did -- and to tell me that this too would pass.

5 "Let me know the results"

Oddly, one doesn't particularly want to feel obliged to hit the social networks the moment one returns from long, complicated, stressful and invasive tests, which ultimately delivered news you simply didn't want to hear. Of course, this request is made because people are worried.

But, a bit of worry is easier to bear than the process of coming to terms with news that confirms another round of debilitating, soul-crushing treatment. If people do want to talk about such matters, they really need to be allowed some control over when, how and to whom.

6 "Whatever I can do to help"

Apart from anything else, it's boring. Everybody says it, even though your assumption tends to be that people do want to help, of course. That doesn't mean that help should not be offered. But "Can I pick the children up from school on Tuesdays?" or "Can I come round with a fish pie and a Mad Men box set?" is greatly preferable to: "Can I saddle you with the further responsibility of thinking up a task for me?"

If you do happen to be on the receiving end of "whatever I can do to help", be shameless. Delegate with steely and ruthless intent.

7 "Oh, no, your worries are unfounded"

Especially when those worries are extremely founded indeed. Like a lot of women, when I was first diagnosed, I was disproportionately focused on the prospect of losing my hair. One friend, every time I tried to discuss this with her, would assert -- baselessly -- that this wasn't as likely to happen as it used to be. Actually, it's still very likely, and indeed it came to pass.

But the crucial thing was this: I didn't want to talk about how pointless it was to be fearful. I wanted to talk about how sorely I dreaded the day when I was bald.

Even when fears are imaginary, there are more subtle ways of offering assurance than blank rebuttal. Usually, an ill person brings something up because they feel a need to discuss it. Denying them that need is a bit brutal.

8 "What does chemotherapy feel like?"

It is staggering, the number of people who find it impossible to restrain their curiosity. Swaths of folk appear to imagine that exactly what you need, in your vulnerability, is a long and technical Q&A during which you furnish them with exhaustive detail pertaining to the most shit thing that's ever happened to your body in your life.

If someone wants to talk about their procedures or their symptoms, they will. Again, the golden rule is: take your lead from the person undergoing the experience.

I tended to want my mind taken off all that stuff, and have a nice chat about nice things.

9 "I really must see you"

Don't say it, particularly, if you are then going to indulge in some long and complicated series of exchanges about your own busy life and the tremendous difficulty you have in finding an actual window, even though this appointment is so awfully important to you. The planning thing is an arse.

I liked it when people just said, "Can I come by after work this evening?" or, even better, "I've got tickets to the theatre on the 25th. Tell me on the day if you can face it."

10 "I'm so terribly upset about your condition"

One friend, when I told her the initial news, blurted out: "I can't cope without you!" and unleashed a flood of tears. (I hadn't sobbed myself at that point. I never did.)

The most important thing to remember, when your friend is facing a frightening and possibly fatal illness? It's not, not, not about you. If you're too upset to be in a position to comfort your friend, send cards, send flowers, send presents. But don't send your ailing chum a passionate storm of your own wild grief, personally delivered.

If you recognise things that you have said or done yourself within this list, don't feel bad about it. I most certainly have, and I've said and done much, much worse too; it took being on the receiving end before I realised what it could feel like.

The thing is this: giant illness is a time of great intensity, and even the most cack-handed expressions of support or love are better than a smack in the face. People feel helpless when they see that their friend is suffering.

Sometimes they say the wrong thing. But they are there, doing the best that they can, at a terrible, abject time. That's the most important thing.

I look back on those grisly moments of ineptitude and clumsiness with exasperated amusement and tender, despairing, deep fondness.

The great lesson I learned from having cancer, was how splendid my friends were, whatever their odd little longueurs.

They all, in their different ways, let me know that they loved me, and that is the most helpful thing of all.

I'm so lucky to have them.


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