Say it with silence

When I was a teenager, I had my heart spectacularly broken. As in loud, ugly, snotty crying, throwing myself on the floor, weeping and threatening to become a nun. Nothing could console me. NOTHING! I will never forget my mother’s words to me…………..wait for it……………….. “don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea” Looking back now, she was right, and marrying that strange Afrikaner boy who now lives in Perth would have been the worse thing ever. But her using that cliché on me at the worse possible time ever, belittling my pain, made my all ready miserable self feel even worse.

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Now, decades later one of the best people I know has cancer. I want to go and sit outside her house and guard her from people saying stuff, that although their intentions might be pure, just sucks to hear when you are the one dealing with the prognosis, diagnosis and frightening reality.

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Kate Bowler who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in her early thirties say that the worse things to say to a person is ( forgive me for quoting directly from her book “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved )

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‘Well, at least . . .’

Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it’s not . . . what? Stage V cancer? Don’t minimize.

‘In my long life, I’ve learned that . . .’

Geez. Do you want a medal? I get it! You lived forever. Well, some people are worried that they won’t, or that things are so hard they won’t want to. So ease up on the life lessons. Life is a privilege, not a reward.

‘It’s going to get better. I promise.’

Well, fairy godmother, that’s going to be a tough row to hoe when things go badly.

‘God needed an angel.’

This one takes the cake because (a) it makes God look sadistic and needy and (b) angels are, according to Christian tradition, created from scratch. Not dead people looking for a cameo in Ghost. You see how confusing it is when we just pretend that the deceased return to help you find your car keys or make pottery?

‘Everything happens for a reason.’

The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason. I’ve had hundreds of people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to Brussels sprouts. I mean, no one is short of reasons. So if people tell you this, make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest moments of their lives, and start offering your own. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.

‘I’ve done some research and…’

I thought I should listen to my oncologist and my nutritionist and my team of specialists, but it turns out that I should be listening to you. Yes, please, tell me more about the medical secrets that only one flaxseed provider in Orlando knows. Wait, let me get a pen.

‘When my aunt had cancer…’

My darling dear, I know you are trying to relate to me. Now you see me and you are reminded that terrible things have happened in the world. But guess what?

That is where I live, in the valley of the shadow of death. But now I’m on vacation because I’m not in the hospital or dealing with my mess. Do I have to take my sunglasses off and join you in the saddest journey down memory lane, or do you mind if I finish my mojito?

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‘So how are the treatments going? How are you really?’

This is the toughest one of all. I can hear you trying to understand my world and be on my side. But picture the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Got it?

Now try to put it in a sentence. Now say it aloud 50 times a day. Does your head hurt? Do you feel sad? Me too. So let’s just see if I want to talk about it today because sometimes I do and sometimes I want a hug and a recap of American Ninja Warrior.”

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I think what I am trying to say is let’s minimize the advice we give, let’s go gentler on the questioning and be more generous with the showing-up, dropping a meal, doing the school run.

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I get it wrong often, and let’s face it, I should know better. But maybe we say these wrong things because we are so desperate to believe it. Maybe this is what WE want to hear. We want to say “ I know you’ll get better” “I know it will be fine” “I know there is a quick fix” Maybe because we want it for our own lives, when our own lives are overwhelming. Our lives of hectic school run schedules, ploughing through e-mails, panicking over missed calls, trying to get on top of our depression, hating our job, fighting with that friend, searching for a carer for our parents, speed reading our book-club book, burning dinner and trying to schedule the odd love-making with our spouse.

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We also want a promise, a promise that it will be fine.

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Life is so hard, but in between the mundane, the brutal and the utterly beautiful, there is so much grace. And are we not lucky that we can do it together?

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