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.