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People Say The Wrong Thing

By HERWriter
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They don’t mean to but inevitably, people will say the wrong thing. Whether about you having a medical problem or experiencing a loss, they just don’t know what to say and the wrong words tumble out of their mouths.

I recently conducted a survivor course at a national cancer conference and the group kept coming back to this phenomenon. Women from all over the country, from every economic and cultural sector had the very same experience: friends and family inevitably stumble onto the same misguided list of What Not To Say To A Cancer Survivor.

Here are a few of their favorites, in case you’re wondering if you’ve made that same faux pas. (And these are real)
-What a great way to lose weight.
-At least you don’t need to spend so much time on your hair.
-Nausea is just like morning sickness - no big deal.
-I know what you’re going through.
-Great! Now you can get a free boob-job. Or tummy tuck.
-You’re only given that which you can handle.
-My friend had that and she died.

So after giving everyone a chance to vent, I try to put this into perspective. People WANT to say the right thing but don’t know what it is. So they blurt out something that sounded comforting a moment ago when they formed the thought. They try to find the bright spot in the rubble of a friend’s crisis.

If we keep in mind that the person’s intention is to be supportive – not hurtful – the words will lose their sting.

The California Women’s Conference featured a roundtable between Elizabeth Edwards, Susan St. James, Lisa Niemi, and Maria Shriver talking about grief. Each had lost a loved one in a very public way: Elizabeth and Susan each lost sons, Lisa lost husband Patrick Swayze, and Maria lost her mother and Uncle Teddy. Each had the same experience: people didn’t know what to say and it just comes out wrong.

But the lesson was this: Know what’s in the person’s heart and remember that you were once the person saying the wrong thing.

What’s the right thing to say in situations like this? I suggest that you open yourself to the person in pain. Let down the façade and reach into your own soul. Then speak from that place, authentically and personally.

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HERWriter Guide

Hi Annette - Thanks again for another insightful and helpful post. Just as most patients aren't prepared for a cancer diagnosis, most of the patient's friends and family members haven't been prepared for how to handle this either.

My oncology practice offers some helpful tips for family members and caregivers. I found this tip very helpful:

Use the same language as your friend uses. If he/she says cancer, you can say cancer. If he/she says tumor or malignancy, use those words.

This helped me realize that I needed to tell my friends that it was okay to use the word cancer around me, and let them know it would not make me uncomfortable. I also realized that they were waiting for some direction from me in order to more easily open up conversations.

You are absolutely right that it's important to get to the point where you can have a real dialog with others. Thanks again for great insight on how to do this.

Take good care,

October 29, 2009 - 5:44pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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