My friend just received a horrible diagnosis, a man recently confided to me. I want to support him through his illness. But I just dont know what to say.
The serious illness of a close friend or loved one can throw us into emotional turmoil. Were saddened by the news. Were equally upended by the close proximity to our own frailty and death. This could have been me, we secretly say to ourselves. The diagnosis is peripherally ours.
As a result, were confused about our role in anothers illness. Should we distract them? Ask pointed medical questions? Pretend as if nothing has happened?
Below are suggestions about talking to someone who is terminally ill:
Be present. Stop by for a visit. Call and chat on the phone. Stroke your girlfriends hair. Read a book to Dad as he receives chemo. Your acts neednt be heroic. They may even seem inconsequential in light of the severity of the situation. Still your presence sends an all-important message: Im here for you.
Dont try to be a therapist. You neednt delve into the patients fears or attempt to relieve underlying depression. Youre quickly apt to get in over your head. Besides, the patient needs your love and friendship. Save professional assistance for the professionals.
Ask how you can help. Call and ask what needs you can fill. Perhaps you can drive the carpool or temporarily board the cat. The patient may need assistance getting to doctors appointments. Placing yourself at your loved ones disposal benefits both the patient and the family.
Be willing to talk small talk.
A terminally ill person may be eager to chat about topics outside of the sick room. Anything is grist for the conversational mill. Start with interests the two of you share, then allow the banter to follow its own path. Youll both enjoy the psychological reprieve.
Dont try to fix things. You dont have to make things better. In fact, any attempts may be perceived as disruptive and stressful. Allow yourself to be comfortable within the framework of the situation. Your acceptance and caring are enough.
Be creative. There is plenty you can do to make the patient smile. Play a new game. Show pictures of a trip. Watch a ball game. Do a craft. Youll have fun in the process. Your loved one will revel in the attention.
Invite the ill person to express his or her feelings. Open-ended statements such as I heard about the latest test results, and Im wondering what your thoughts are about what the doctor said, open the lines for dialogue. The patient may be eager to talk further or prefer to avoid the topic altogether. Either way is appropriate.
Avoid asking How are you? Its likely to elicit a cursory Fine that promptly ends the discussion. Instead, take your cues from the patient. If she looks stressed, a simple bad day? gets communication started.
Accept the patients denial. Denial can be an important coping mechanism. It occurs when the news is too frightening or overwhelming or when it threatens the ill persons sense of control. Its a natural form of self-protection that allows the patient to face reality as she is able. Let her know youll be available whenever she is ready.
Be flexible. Each interaction with the patient may be different. Sometimes hes deep and brooding. At other times hes chatty and upbeat. Follow his lead so you know what to do next.
Support the patients spiritual concerns. One terminally ill person may find comfort in her faith and request religious counsel. Another may rebuff traditional religion, preferring a personal, secular approach. Never attempt to change a persons spiritual orientation. The choice is up to them. If a patient seems to be searching, feel free to share your beliefs. Or you can provide a cross section of spiritual literature and allow your loved one to decide.
Try these cant-miss words. If youre stumped about what to say, these phrases are always fitting: Im sorry. Im here for you. Youre a wonderful person. I love you.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit http://lindalewisgriffith.com.