Saturday, October 13, 2012

What Not to Say

Over the 16 months my mom was sick, and in the 18 since she passed away, I’ve encountered many people who “want to help.” Some of these people were close friends; others were nearly strangers. All were appreciated.

But through those interactions, I identified two things people often resort to saying that are no help, and in my opinion, make it hurt a little more. I don’t believe anyone ever said these things to me with the intention of being hurtful. I think people just don’t know what to say.

Thing 1: “I know how you feel.”

Honest, direct thoughts on Thing 1: This sentence made me want to respond with, “Oh really? Your mom was diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 51 and died at 52, leaving you confused, sometimes bitter, and scared out of your mind?” I never responded that way. I usually just let the moment pass. But unless you’ve been through an identical situation, there’s a good chance you don’t know how it feels.

I certainly appreciate someone’s attempt to empathize, but uttering these words to someone losing a parent can quickly put them on the defensive. Most of the time, I wasn’t looking for someone to tell me stories of how they know what it feels like because 12 years ago he lost his 90-year old great aunt to cancer. At the risk of sounding like a witch, I didn’t want to hear about anyone else’s stuff unless they truly needed someone to be there for them. A lot of times, the person wasn’t looking for that; they were looking for a way to show how they cared – “See, cancer affected me too!” Again, the intent was always kind, but it made me angry that people thought they understood when they clearly couldn’t.

Thing 2: “Everything happens for a reason.”

Honest, direct thoughts on Thing 2: This one makes my blood boil still. I don’t care if you believe this is true or not – don’t say it to someone whose parent is dying, or anyone going through a seemingly pointless tragedy. My response to this in my mind was typically along the lines of, “Ok, please, tell me what you think the reason for this would be?”

I get that death is a part of living, and that we all inevitably face it. But why was my mom made to face it at age 52? How come my family is trying to figure out how we keep living without her? The truth is that my mom was a genuinely good person. And the other truth is that my family never took her for granted. We really had it all – our home was full of love, respect, and all the things a family prays to have. So why her? Don’t tell me she’s sick for a reason. She did nothing to deserve that.

This is probably the whiniest post I’ve written, although my motivation wasn’t a need to whine or vent. These are things I genuinely want other people to know. Even though I’ve experienced some of the craptastic things other people have or will have to go through (cancer, death of a parent, learning to live after cancer causes the death of a parent), I still don’t always know what to say when others go through it. All I know is what did and didn’t help me. Those two sentences didn’t help me. And soon I’ll write about what did.

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