What TO say.

We recently chatted about what not to say to people who are struggling with an illness, loss or trauma. A few people asked us a valid question: “What should we then say?”

We read up a bit about this, and truth be told, saying the right things are less important than just plain showing up!

Show up in ways that fit your personality. What you are good at and with does the person might need. Physical presence is required (do not read long conversations filled with advice and suggestion) and an act of service or a gift.

Many people said to me that everyone asks them how they can help, what they need and what people can do. People in difficult places are often so overwhelmed and dealing with feelings of inadequacies and loss, that to verbalise what they need on top of everything else , often adds to the stress, instead of decreasing it.

Here are some examples of messages you can send with a plan of action:

“Hi, I will bring your kids back from school next week Tuesday. On my way I will get your groceries, I’ll get all the usual things I get myself. If you need anything added to the list you can just let me know.”

“Hi there, I am dropping off two meals tomorrow you can keep in the freezer. I’ll also sit with you and make you a cup of tea. Promise not to stay too long.”

“Hello, I’ll drive you to chemo on your next visit and then stay with you and we can watch nonsense on Youtube or we can just sit together.”

A lot of patients say that they feel like they are no more than their diagnosis and that they are constantly having to give updates on their progress, treatments and symptoms. It is important to be interested, but remember to show interest in other facets of the person. When my sister-in-law was battling for years with a life-threatening disease, people thought nothing of criticizing her choices of treatments, advice doctors gave her, time it took to get better and expected almost daily updates of her condition. Instead of people condescendingly giving her advice (even though she had the best medical team at her disposal), they could have remembered that she was a mother, she was hugely successful, she had a thriving business, she was intelligent, she loved to swim, she had a great sense of humour. She was more than her illness. Just sitting beside her and chatting about which school’s netball team won, gossiping about the royal family, or laughing at a stupid YouTube clip, was much more helpful to her than forcing her to explain AGAIN why the pulmonologist could not fix her in 3 days using essential oils and vitamin K.

Here are some more ideas of kinds of messages one can send:

“Hey my love, I checked in with Peter and know what is happening with your prognosis etc. Just want you to know I am thinking of you. I found some funny photos of us in our youth. I’ll pop in tomorrow so we can look at them for a giggle.”

“Hey darling, I know you are chatting to all the right medical people and I don’t expect a report. Trust you will share when you want to and I would love to listen. In the meantime can I bring Scrabble round later and I can whip your arse?”

What I learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all and that we mess up all the time, but combining physical nearness, language and acts of service is a damn good start.

Next week we will chat about things to say after a death of a loved one.

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