Q: I have reached an age where many of my friends are either dying or dealing with serious illnesses. I often find I stumble over words and feel awkward not knowing what to say or do. Can you point me in the right direction?
A: No matter what age you are, encountering death or a devastating health diagnosis can make it difficult for many of us to find the words to appropriately express our feelings. Without even being aware of their insensitivity people may make hurtful comments to the bereaved individual. An acquaintance, who was recently widowed, commented how shaken she was when a longtime friend said “It was probably for the best” following the death of her husband. The man had been ill for quite some time but in his wife’s eyes he was still her best friend and the love of her life, she would have done anything to have had more time with him. She had no doubt her friend would never have intentionally added to her pain if she had known the impact her words were going to produce.
The old saying “Think before you speak” applies to your question. There are times actions are more powerful than words. A warm hug, pat on the back or holding a hand communicates more than the spoken word ever could. People often appreciate hearing why other people will miss the deceased individual or how much they had meant to friends and family. Consistently gauge the emotions of the bereaved person, they may give you an indication of how much to say.
Actually there is an abundance of information on the Internet and in your local library on just this subject. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick”, wrote the book after her own experience with a cancer diagnosis. Her “10 Commandments for Conversing With a Sick Friend” might be something you would find helpful. One point that really stands out is do not compare another person’s illness to something you have experienced...they are not the same!
Mistakes made in similar situations are comments such as “I can understand what you are going through”, “Time will heal all wounds”, “He had a good life” or “At least the suffering is over”. Instead a simple “I want to help” can be more productive. The person may not know immediately what you can do but at least they know you have made the offer.
Do you have a question? We encourage inquiries and comments from our readers. Direct correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. 360 Merrimack Street B#5, Lawrence, MA 01843. Rosanne DiStefano is the Executive Director of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley. For additional information or to schedule an appointment call 1-800-892-0890.