As 2014 begins across ReadTheSpirit magazine, writers are helping us rethink our relationships. They are reminding us that compassion and hospitality—core strengths of caregivers—are universal goals. Last week, poet Judith Valente published a very helpful column called “10 Steps Toward Peace” that is right in line with my column today, especially in her advice about stopping to think before we speak. I hope you will help us to continue this discussion. It’s important.
When someone finds out that I had cancer and the next thing they say is, “Let me tell you about …” Many times the story about their relative or friend is fine—but often the story ends with the person dying. How many times has this kind of thing happened to you?
Have you been in my shoes, hearing such a grim story? Or, have you been in the role of the storyteller? You need to know: Such stories are not helpful. More often than not, I walk away from such a story thinking: Why did she tell me that!?!
As I write this column, I’m thinking about a woman who I met at a speaking event who just found out that her cancer has returned. I don’t know her well, but we do interact often on Facebook. My heart hurts for her right now. Not necessarily because of the cancer itself—from what I know, she will get past that—but for the draining emotional struggle of managing her emotions while being bombarded by others.
If you know that you’ve been guilty of rushing to tell such unhelpful stories—I realize that the impulse doesn’t come from ill intent. The stories spill out of us because we don’t stop to think before speaking. And I admit, there is no Emily Post guide to caregiving conversations. So, in the spirit of Judith Valente’s steps toward more peaceful and compassionate living, I’m going to offer my own set of tips. Let’s call this …
“Wait! Before you say that …”
When you’re visiting someone going through a challenge as tough as a new cancer diagnosis, consider these six tips:
1. Whatever the diagnosis might be, never tell a story about someone who has died of that disorder.
2. Don’t pretend nothing is different. Life has changed dramatically for this person. Think carefully before you speak.
3. You don’t suddenly have the right to ask personal questions that you wouldn’t normally ask—just because of a diagnosis.
4. Unsolicited advice is still unsolicited advice.
5. This is not about you. There is a time and place for nearly everything and this may not be the time for your agenda.
6. Back off. Wait. Listen. Think before you speak or act. The person may need some time to process this major life change. It is overwhelming to keep everyone “in the loop,” so don’t pepper the person with questions and stories. If you must find out what is going on, then track down a friend or family member. Down the road, there may be many important ways you can help.
Do some of these tips sound harsh? I’m sorry, but sometimes I need to point out the obvious because—unless you’ve been the recipient of a well-meaning flood of responses—you may not realize the impact some of the stories and questions can have.
Help us share this conversation
Please, add a comment below about your own experiences or tips. Use the blue-“f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon to share this with friends. Or, use the green “print” icon to make a copy of this column and discuss it in your small group. I don’t regard my six tips today as the final word in this discussion. Please, tell us what you think.