“Wait! Before you say that …”

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

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 …”

Photo by Pomona, shared for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Pomona, shared for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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  1. phile says

    A great, great column Heather. When my mother was first diagnosed with her cancer, the first thing I can remember someone from my school saying was: “Oh, I know someone that died from that.” Certainly, he wasn’t the first person to comment on my mother’s diagnosis, but it’s the one I remember because of how insensitive and hurtful and shocking it was, delivered with such insincerity.

  2. K Macdonald says

    Love your first 5 points … disagree with the 6th. Too many family members, colleagues, friends and neighbors back off COMPLETELY. You are dead to them until you return to health. They could be contacting a family member as suggested but you have no idea. As far as you know, they are blind to your struggle. As a throat cancer survivor, I suggest that you ACTIVELY find a way to stay in touch … with periodic brief emails that say you are thinking of them, send a card, short texts, an inexpensive super market flower bouquet, a $5 gift card for coffee for “when you’re up to it”, etc.
    Relying on a family friend may leave the person with the diagnosis cut off and wondering what happened. I will never forget the kindness of those who did not back off … week after week they stayed in touch. They found ways to “be there” without requiring a thing from me.
    I suspect Heather’s advice was aimed more at those who don’t know when to back off. For the rest of you (the majority), don’t turn away. Just find a way to continue to keep in touch.

    • Heather Jose says

      I agree with you Kathy. I was thinking of the initial diagnosis time when people are often bombarded with questions and emotions from other people that can be overwhelming. One of my friends was recently diagnosis and she reached out to me saying, “I can’t handle any more people coming up to me crying!” It is too much, especially in the beginning. But the type of contact and keeping in touch you are talking about… I am all for it!