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What Do You Say?

Here’s and op-ed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman from the L.A. Times on How Not to Say the Wrong Thing to someone who is sick:

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”

“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.

[Picture by Susan Derges]


1 Ben   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:09 am

Not sure I understand what's wrong with the second scenario. Maybe it's the tone that I'm missing but seems like a normal and appropriate reaction.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:10 am

1) They go on to say it is a normal reaction but best not said to the person who is sick.

3 Ben   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:13 am

Oh. I get it.

I read it as she was saying it to the husband as a private moment between them.

4 Ben   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:16 am

I remember going in to see an old friend sick dad. The friend met me at the main entrance and we were BSing on the way to his dad's room. Right before we step in, this friend says, "Dad looks real different. thin. No hair. It's gonna be a shock."

So I was prepared when I stepped in and saw a different man that I knew. He looked like an alien, and i was glad the friend had warned me. If he hand't, I easily would've fumbled my visit.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:25 am

4) Yeah, it's so tough to brace yourself for something like that. But I think what's interesting in the article is how much people's reactions are all about themselves when someone is ill. That's the way we usually are, but it seems heightened when someone is ill.

It's painful because you feel helpless and for so many of us the first response to helplessness is to offer advice or opinions on how things should be done. And for those who are sick that's just a burden.

6 garydsimms   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:32 am

It's interesting that sometimes people with a severe illness are very private about it -- sometimes it's almost like they are ashamed (which is n't hard to figure out in a culture like ours that so prizes youthful fitness and health). They may ask not to spread the word. That creates a really tough situation: whether to respect the person's privacy, or to allow others the opportunity to provide comfort and consolation.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:36 am

6) Yes, it is tricky because that person might not want others to provide comfort. They may feel more pressure in letting others in because, as this article details, you have to filter out a lot of shit in people's reactions. I don't think outsiders, even close family and friends, are intentionally harmful, not at all, but it can get complicated so I understand the idea of not wanting too many people to get close. It also takes a lot of energy on the patient's behalf to be with people, they may feel the need to entertain, or at least, be mindful of them, and at some stages, there is just no energy for that.

But I also relate to being on the outside and wanting to be close, wanting to be helpful.

It's complicated, right?

8 Ben   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:39 am

Yup. I think sometimes people keep it private to avoid too many of the above scenarios. I had one friend who did that. It was awkward for me, but easier for her.

It's a tough situation. Becuase there's protocol, then there's always a case where crazy Aunt Bee come pushing her way in and says, Well DID you get a third opinion???? and that third opinion ends up being really helpfull.

9 Ben   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:39 am

belth boys, representing on the medical tip!

10 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 9, 2013 9:46 am

9) Word! We have some experience here.

11 ms october   ~  Apr 9, 2013 10:46 am

[5] yea my mom always says being sick/dying is more about the reaction of the healthy/living.

thing is it is about the other person. you are reacting, and have to try your best to react in a way that is okay for them.
very complicated and not an easy situation for anybody involved.

12 Chyll Will   ~  Apr 9, 2013 5:14 pm

There's another aspect to this of course. When people you care about get sick in any manner, the default tendency is to nurture that person; fuss over them to make sure they are doing whatever they can to remain in a discernible state of wellness and safety. I had to deal with this when I had a rash of seizures in my late teens that nearly ended my life; everyone who knew me or knew of me were nurses who made sure I was taking my medication and not over- exerting myself. It was a very humbling and limiting experience; after a while you can't be certain you're as well as you think based on the reactions of those around you. You know they care, which makes it harder to reject. It's stressful, regardless of the intentions.

I was put on medical leave from all phys-ed activity after a seizure incident in gym; after a couple of months I was restless to return to activities, but the department head rejected me and said something aggressive about my dad (who he obviously didn't know). When Dad heard about it, regardless of the fact that he didn't directly diss him, my father defaulted to Crush-Kill-Destroy Mode , which would have been awkward if I didn't talk him out of it, but I did end up returning to gym a week later. But all that to say that sensitivities are sky high under those circumstances, so it's important to watch what you say before unexpected complications arise...

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