We often feel at a loss for words when the news is bad

Something difficult has unfolded around here lately and when news got out a dear friend came by with a gift of a story. She told us about a day years ago when one neighbor heard the other had breast cancer. The well neighbor was shocked and saddened. She was at a loss and wanted to help; wanted to do something but, what? In a daze but motivated none the less, she grabbed a can of beans from her cupboard (perhaps we should imagine she was reaching for the chocolates?) and headed to her friend’s house. She rang the bell and as the door opened she felt suddenly a bit silly but, with a warm embrace she greeted her friend and said “I have brought you something.”

When those around us are suffering, when the news is bad, we often feel at a loss for words.  Or worry we will say the wrong things. And, all too often we do. I sat by the fire Sunday night talking about what people say and do in these moments. Some feel compelled to tell you their story.  When my brother-in-law committed suicide a few years back his brother had to endure story after story of other similar deaths. How painful for him to have to stand there suddenly supporting rather than being supported! Or, people would say how horrible it was that his brother had done this to him. Rather than lamenting how much pain his brother must have had to quietly suffer before death!

When I shared my recent news with a friend  she blurted out a question that was so absurd as to deserve my favorite of all snap comebacks: “Oh my! You actually said that out loud! You must be so embarrassed.” I of course did not think that fast and simply answered the hurtful question. Another friend of mine recently lost both of her beloved grandparents in the same month. She received many comments about how they had lived a long life implying perhaps that it was okay that they had died. Instead for her, the loss was stark and biting – not easier somehow because she had lived all these years with their love.

These examples brought me to think of an article I read last summer. In “You Look Great and Other Lies” Bruce Feiler writes well of “Six Things You Should Never Say to a Friend (or Relative or Colleague) Who’s Sick. And Four Things You Can Always Say.” It is absolutely worth a read. The tip that most sticks in my mind (perhaps because it seemed such a natural thing to say) is that it is hurtful to hear, “You look great!” As if it is all about looks?

In the spirit of Mr. Feiler’s article and in the spirit of knowing that all of us mean well and want to say the right words let me add a few tips:

  • Learn to be comfortable with a moment of silence. As a physician and as a person who likes to gab I have had to cultivate this skill. When confronting uncomfortable topics many of us have a tendency to start talking – immediately and fast. Instead, pause, breathe and count to ten. While you do you can gather your thoughts and the person you are with may have a chance to tell you more.
  • Simplicity is best. The briefest responses are often the most powerful. Try “My heart goes out to you” or “I love you and wish you did not have to face this.” Best yet for me was “I have faith in you.”

And, don’t forget Feiler’s tip: don’t ask, “How can I help?” There are few people who want to ask for help and in a crisis, few who know what help they need. Instead – just figure out how to help on your own. Bring dinner. Call on your way to the grocery store to ask for their shopping list. Send a note. Or, if all else fails you … bring a can of beans. Your support will be priceless.

Kate Land is a pediatrician who blogs at mdmommusings.

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