I’ve never had to face really ill health but my son has. Born two months premature with some gastric and respiratory complications he endured quite a rough ride in intensive care. My family, friends, even strangers I met at the hospital coffee shop, would gee me along telling me how well he was doing or how soon he would be better. It was confusing because this isn’t what I was hearing from anyone who actually examined him, like, you know, a doctor.
But I understood where they were coming from. I’ve been known to do the same thing although I have tried to learn to listen more and speak less. So now when I see someone who is genuinely sick – life threateningly sick – I often freeze.
Well I freeze externally – internally I am buzzing with ridiculous thoughts and words that I try desperately not to allow any air time. My instinct is to try and make the person better, to fix them with my words or try and reassure them that it’s not so bad, when often it is.
Bruce Feiler author of “The Council of Dads: A Story of Family, Friendship and Learning How to Live”, recently shared an excerpt of his book in The New York Times. Bruce had bone cancer, he also had 3-year-old identical twin girls, a working wife, 9 months of chemotherapy and 15 hours of reconstructive surgery to deal with.
People rallied to help him, they organised food, they helped with childcare, his friends even made a video of their high school reunion but as Bruce concedes “some gestures were more helpful than others, and a few were downright annoying”
Bruce created a list of the Six Things You Should Never Say to a Friend (or Relative or Colleague) Who’s Sick. And Four Things You Can Always Say.
So the things you shouldn’t say according to Bruce Feiler.
1. What can I do to help?
Don’t ask people what you can do to help them – just help. Get their house cleaned, have meals prepared, pick the kids up from school. Be proactive
2. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
“It’s a mindless cliché” Bruce writes “It’s time to retire this hackneyed expression to the final resting place of platitudes, alongside “I’m stepping down to spend more time with my family,” or “It’s not you, it’s me.”
3. Did you try that mango colonic I recommended ?
Let the doctors make the medical recommendations “I was stunned by the number of friends and strangers alike who inundated me with tips for miracle tonics… “If you put tumeric under your fingernails, and pepper on your neck, and take a grapefruit shower, you’ll feel better”. Just don’t do it.