ABSOLUTELY NEVER SAY THIS TO PEOPLE EXPERIENCING TERRIBLE TIMES: A SHORT LIST
1. “Well, at least . . .”
Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it’s not…what? Stage V
cancer? Don’t minimize.
2. “In my long life, I’ve learned that…”
Geez. Do you want a medal? I get it! You lived forever. Well, some people are worried that they
won’t, or that things are so hard they won’t want to. So ease up on the life lessons. Life is a privilege,
not a reward.
3. “It’s going to get better. I promise.”
Well, fairy godmother, that’s going to be a tough row to hoe when things go badly.
4. “God needed an angel.”
This one takes the cake because (a) it makes God look sadistic and needy and (b) angels are,
according to Christian tradition, created from scratch. Not dead people looking for a cameo in Ghost.
You see how confusing it is when we just pretend that the deceased return to help you find you car
keys or make pottery?
5. “Everything happens for a reason.”
The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason. I’ve had hundreds of
people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because
God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to Brussels sprouts. I mean, no one is short
of reasons. So if people tell you this, make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest
moments of their lives and start offering your own. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse
than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.
6. “I’ve done some research and…”
I thought I should listen to my oncologist and my nutritionist and my team of specialists, but it turns
out that I should be listening to you. Yes, please tell me more about the medical secrets that only one
flaxseed provider in Orlando knows. Wait, let me get a pen.
7. “When my aunt had cancer…”
My darling dear, I know you are trying to relate to me. Now you see me and you are reminded that
terrible things have happened in the world. But guess what? That is where I live, in the valley of the
shadow of death. But now I’m on vacation because I’m not in the hospital or dealing with my mess.
Do I have to take my sunglasses off and join you in the saddest journey down memory lane, or do you
mind if I finish my mojito?
8. “So how are the treatments going? How are you really?”
This is the toughest one of all. I can hear you trying to understand my world and be on my side. But
picture the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Got it? Now try to put it in a sentence. Now
say it aloud fifty times a day. Does your head hurt? Do you feel sad? Me too. So let’s just see if I want
to talk about it today because sometimes I do and sometimes I want a hug and a recap of American
GIVE THIS A GO, SEE HOW IT WORKS: A SHORT LIST
1. “I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?”
Oh, thank goodness. I am starving, but mostly I can never figure out something to tell people that I
need, even if I need it. But really, bring me anything. Chocolate. A potted plant. A set of weird
erasers. I remember the first gift I got that wasn’t about cancer and I was so happy I cried. Send me
funnty emails filled with YouTube clips to watch during chemotherapy. Do something that suits your
gifts. But most important, bring me presents.
2. “You are a beautiful person.”
Unless you are of the opposite gender and used to speaking in a creepy windowless-van kind of voice,
comments like these go a long way. Everyone wants to know they are doing a good job without
feeling like they are learning a lesson. So tell y9our friend something about his life that you admire
without making it feel like a eulogy.
3. “I am so grateful to hear about how you’re doing and just know that I’m on your team.”
You mean I don’t have to give you an update? You asked someone else for all the gory details?
Whew. Great! Now I get to feel like you are both informed and concerned. So dond’t gild the lily.
What you have said is amazing, so don’t screw it up now by being a Nosy Nellie. Ask a question about
any other aspect of my life.
4. “Can I give you a hug?”
Some of my best moments with people have come with a hug or a hand on the arm. People who are
suffering often—not always—feel isolated and want to be touched. Hospitals and big institutions in
general tend to treat people like cyborgs or throwaways. So ask if your friend feels up for a hug and
give her some sugar.
5. “Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard.”
Perhaps the weirdest thing about having something awful happen is the fact that no one wants to
hear about it. People tend to want to hear the summary but they don’t usually want to hear it from
you. And that it was awful. So simmer down and let them talk for a bit. Be willing to stare down the
ugliness and sadness. Life is absurdly hard, and pretending it isn’t is exhausting.
6. ***** Silence *****
The truth is that no one knows what to say. It’s awkward. Pain is awkward. Tragedy is awkward.
People’s weird, suffering bodies are awkward. But take the advice of one man who wrote to me with
his policy: Show up and shut up.
A FINAL PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT TO SUFFERING PEOPLE:
Just remember that if cancer or divorce or tragedies of all kinds don’t kill you, people’s good
intentions will. Take the phrase “but they mean well…” as your cue to run screaming from the room.
Or demand presents. You deserve a break.