As I said in yesterday’s post, this has been a week of “What to say when” for me. I’ve found myself three times wondering how in the world I could console someone, or support them in difficult situations. One was the loss of a Dad to suicide. Another was the trauma of a boss who was making life impossible and the third was someone who needed my support because of a diagnosis of cancer which is very frightening.
All three times my heart ached but I feared the right words would fail me when they needed me to say things that would be supportive and helpful.
Today I will talk about what to say…
…when someone is diagnosed with a critical illness?
When someone dies the strategy is to say very little but in the case of a frightening diagnosis silence is more difficult though there may be some merit to saying very little beyond offering hope unless you are asked to have a conversation about it. Remember you are not the doctor and don’t start talking about all the frightening things you know about other people who have had a similar illness. If you can’t offer hope then try silence.
When you are talking to good friends and close family members, however, there is much to consider. The first thing to think of is that you don’t want to bring unnecessary negativity into the situation. You cannot talk as if life is over unless you know hope is lost. Doctors need patients to be as positive as they can be in order to take on the surgeries and treatments that lie ahead. Any oncologist will concur that positive patients are much more likely to survive.
Keeping this in mind there are also realities that need to be talked about. A simple way to present the necessary discussions about wills, funeral plans, insurance and other money concerns is simply to go in with the idea that all of these things should be done by everyone, and the sooner the better. When I spoke to my friend about these things I suggested that the sooner these details about death were taken care of the easier it would be to get on with the business of living. The pep talk I gave to her gave me a little boot in the behind to be sure I get my own affairs in order so I don’t have to face this discussion in a difficult time. Putting it off isn’t going to scare death away but it will make it easier to deal with when I face it.
The rest of our discussion was about the wonderful gifts she has to leave behind and how she can give those gifts to her children and grandchildren, even if she lives another 20 years. We talked about memory books, letters to write to them for special events like significant birthdays, weddings and the birth of their own children. If she is gone they can open those gifts and feel more like she is with them and if she is still here she will be able to hand them to them herself.
My friend is a very talented photographer and has a dream to publish some of her work. That can be done easily in this electronic age and we found a website that allows you to publish your own book, one copy at a time. You do the work and set up the pages with story and photos and then it is printed on request. This is a perfect answer for her and could also help build a family history.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the conversation and the reason my friend wanted to speak to me was about the more spiritual elements of the situation. She wanted someone to pray for her because she didn’t know how.
It’s hard to put our own beliefs in our pocket when we are talking to people in pain but that is what must be done. Good spiritual directors and good friends should both know how to support someone using that person’s beliefs as a guide rather than pulling out our own dogmas and religion which can invoke as much fear as they can hope.
In the case of my friend I tried to listen carefully to her heart to figure out what it really was she needed from me. It turns out she didn’t know how to pray. The solution was an easy one. I simply asked what she would say to her creator or the Divine. She told me all the things on her heart. My answer was that she had just prayed. What she said to me she could say to her God because he/she is only a breath away and doesn’t need fancy words or religious spectacle to hear our hearts.