The Right Thing to Say

The Right Thing to Say

Just in the last month, I received a difficult medical diagnosis. I’ve discovered that I suffer from a form of chronic leukemia. The very good news is that it is treatable and I and my medical team are presently working on refining that treatment. The odds are very good that I will be healthy enough to live a normal life. I’m very blessed and lucky. What this has done for me, though, is that it has shown me what it is like on the other side of the patient/caring person dyad. In both my professional career and personal life, I have taken seriously the task of being there for people in need when I can. Now it’s me who is in need. Along with being scary and anxiety producing, my diagnosis has also given me some fresh insight into the complicated dance between those in crisis and those seeking to comfort them.

I often hear from this later group the complaint, “I don’t know the right thing to say.” I can now tell you from the perspective of one getting the bad news (especially before my diagnosis was refined) that there really is no guaranteed right thing to say. Rather, I would say that the right thing is a moving target. A comment I might hear in the morning that gives me comfort might aggravate me in the afternoon from that same person. Sometimes I’m in the mood for someone to cheer me up and sometimes I want to wallow in my misery a bit. So, to the question of what the right thing to say is, I’m sorry to report that it’s kind of a best guess.

On the positive side, I can tell you that it matters that you try. It matters that I know you love me and that you are doing your best to bring something to my life that will give me some ease or comfort or hope or smiles. It matters that you are there and are willing to endure my rants and are willing to let me talk about things that are so uncomfortable. I need you to do all these things and not be afraid of me. I also need you to call me on it when I seem ungrateful or exceptionally maudlin for too long.

What I usually don’t need are vain reassurances that everything will be alright when that is still up in the air. I also think that people need to be very careful when expressing comfort in terms of God’s will. I’m a person of faith and I covet your prayers but I think it’s best to let me work on what God wills for me. Also, I would encourage you to be sensitive to cues from the person in crisis. If you watch closely, they will let you know when they don’t want to talk or want to talk more deeply. Heed those cues and try not to take it personally if they pull back from some conversations and don’t be scared if they want to dig a little deeper.

To those on the other side, I can now say this. What I have found most important for myself in terms of other peoples’ attempts to comfort me is that I do much better when I realize that everyone is really doing the best they know how. They really are trying to say something to help a little and let me know they love me. So even if a person says something that pushes my buttons, I take great comfort in the knowledge that their efforts come from a place of love.

This is by no means an exhaustive or even well researched list of findings. These are just some of the things that have occurred to me in my still short journey with a hard diagnosis. Others may have a different take that is at least as valid as mine. I deeply believe, though, that what is finally most important is the sure knowledge of the love that people have for one another. Lean on that and the rest will sort itself out.