Dr. Phil gives a lot of good advice, and some things he said recently really, really hit home for me. This episode of his television show included a segment about a child fighting cancer.
At the end of the segment, Dr. Phil took the time to have a direct conversation with his audience, by himself, looking straight into the camera. He was in serious mode.
Here’s what he said. Many people have asked him how to respond to people who have a sick child. Dr. Phil said he believes in the principle of reciprocity. He advised people to ask the parents how they’re doing, and to take their cue on what to say from what the parents say. If they say they’re fine, accept that. If they disclose information about the situation that makes it clear things are not fine, then recognize that they’re inviting you to engage, and it’s okay to have a conversation with them about how they’re doing and to ask how you can help.
Then he said something that's extremely important – “You don’t ever want to say ‘I know just how you feel’…cause you don’t…and that can really be offensive to someone who feels like they’re really burdened in a situation. So don’t ever say ‘I know how you feel.’ You can listen. You can hear, and say tell me how you feel, I want to help you, I want to share with you, just don’t tell them you know how they feel, unless you really do.”
While his comments were aimed at dealing with parents, the same advice applies to adults with cancer or another serious illness. Our society provides little training or guidelines on how to respond when you interact with someone who has a serious illness. Many adults become uncomfortable, and respond by doing absolutely nothing – no phone calls, no emails, no mention of the elephant in the room when they interact with the ill person or their caregivers. It’s as if by not talking about it they can make it go away or they can prevent themselves from being affected by it. What they don’t realize is that this type of behavior communicates a lack of sensitivity, compassion or concern for the person and is hurtful.
Others who are uncomfortable will play the disease knowledge game, struggling to find something in common with the person. It’s either saying they had something similar or they know someone who had a serious illness or quoting a news article or something.
Again, this is offensive. When a living, breathing human being is right there, and their situation is ignored, they are not being acknowledged as a person. It says to them that they have somehow become a lesser person, which is usually the exact opposite of what was intended by the comments.
So, you’re asking, what do I do and say? First, understand that your conversation with a seriously ill person is about them, and not about you.
Listen to what they say, and use the same language. If a friend says she has breast cancer, you can say breast cancer. If your friend says I have a tumor or malignancy, use the same words. Make them comfortable.
Have the same kind of conversation you would have normally, with a bit more listening and taking cues from your friend. Tell them how you’re doing, both the good and the bad, so your friend feels needed and so they’re also able to contribute to the conversation. Don’t treat them like they’re an invalid because it will make them feel like one.
If something makes you a bit nervous, say so. It’s okay to ask something personal, if you do so in a respectful way. It’s not okay to just assume because the person is a friend that you can look up their condition online and then ask invasive, personal questions. Each person is different, and a slow, respectful approach will open more doors than what seems like a grilling session.
Recognize that the person’s life has been altered forever. After the initial diagnosis and treatment period, the individual will still be undergoing changes in their life stemming directly from the illness. Recognizing this, and continuing to stand by your friend, and continuing to offer support can make a major difference in helping them recover or, in the case of a terminal illness, accepting the situation. Again, this is about them, not you.
Above all, as Dr. Phil said, don’t say you know just how they feel and start talking about yourself. No one trains us or prepares us for these situations. Each of us is going to react in an individual way. Each of us has the right to disclose – or keep private – as much as we want. Most of us are going to go through a roller coaster of emotions with any life changing transition, and they way we feel can change by the hour, day, week, month or year. There is no one way, or even common way, that people with a serious illness “feel” so the only way to find out how someone feels is to ask them, and let them tell you themselves. Then what you do say is, “What can I do for you?”