A few months ago, my son was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. I'm not going to go into the details of where it is, what it is, or how rare it is, because it doesn't lessen the pain of watching your child go through something like this. I will tell you however, that he is doing great and we have every reason to remain calm, focused and positive. Needless to say, when your child has a serious illness, your entire world turns upside down. Breaking the news to your family and friends is difficult. But, even more difficult is hearing some of the responses. While some reactions are exactly what you want and what you need to hear, others are simply the wrong words to say. I realize that many people are uncomfortable and truly don't know how to comfort a friend going through this, so I'm going to share what I've learned to help make it easier on both of us. Here is what NOT to say to someone if they just found out their child has a serious illness or disease:
"I can't imagine what you must be going through."
I'll tell you why I hate this statement: you are now putting the burden on me to comfort YOU. Now I must respond to you by saying things like, "Yes, it's truly hard, but we are going to get through this," or "Yes, I never thought this could happen to us, and we were in shock at first, but now we are in a better place." The fact of the matter is you're probably right that you can't imagine what we are going through and if that's the case, please don't make me feel worse. You are basically saying to me that what we are going through is so horrible and so awful that you can't possibly imagine it. Not exactly the pick-me-up I was hoping for.
"You are handling this so well... You are so strong."
I am not a superhero. I'm a mom, doing what every other mom would do -- absolutely anything and everything to make my child better. When people tell me I'm strong, I get the feeling they expected me to shrivel up into a ball and endlessly cry. Of course I WANT to do that. Who wouldn't? But, I can't. And you couldn't either. This is my kid who needs me. So, I'm going to put a smile on my face and be strong for him, because that's what a mom does. I realize we all have choices to make in terms of how we are going to handle a crisis or challenge. But, I'm willing to bet that 99 percent of moms are going to choose to be a strong model for their children.
"What can I do to help?"
I LOVE that you want to help, I really do. But, please don't ask me what you can do because it is extremely hard for me to ask my friends and family for help. You already know I need the help: I've got two other kids, a dog, laundry, and so on. Except I'm not going to feel comfortable giving you a list of groceries to buy, meals to prepare, and telling you when to carpool my kids. Instead of putting me in the position of dictating to you what I need, please just do whatever you think might help me out. I had one friend who did not ask, but simply delivered to our door a bunch of frozen meals, toys for my son, as well as the perfect items for stressed out parents: sleepy-time tea, candy, a plant, and a heartfelt card. One of my other friends knew my husband would need the help at home while my son and I were out of town at another hospital for medical treatments, so she set up a meal train online. She emailed the link to a bunch of local friends and neighbors and voila, my husband and other two boys had meals delivered a few nights a week. And the meal train will continue on the days my son has treatments when we are back home. We are truly grateful for the help, and even more grateful that we didn't have to ask for it.
"He will be fine."
This one rubs me the wrong way, even though it shouldn't. I want you to be positive and reassuring and that's just what that statement is doing. And, we too are positive and know he will be fine. And yet, you are not his doctor, and you don't know the details of his illness and the tough decisions we've had to make along the way. He WILL be fine, but for you to say it as if it's so obvious and simple -- as if he's recovering from strep throat -- well, we're in a different category over here so please don't pretend we're not.
I am amazed at how many people seem to forget that this isn't just about me and the fear and stress that engulf me as a parent. The real hero, the real warrior in all of this is my son. And yet, it amazes me how many people don't ask how he is doing or feeling. Remember, if you really want to support me, show the support to my son too. Even though he's the most resilient, brave, and laid-back kid with a tumor that you could ever know, he still needs the love too.
I realize by now you are asking, "so what SHOULD we say to you?" While I want you to say what comes from your heart, I will tell you that for me, the most comforting words have been simple ones such as, "I love you, and I'm with you on this." I've had friends who have sent short emails or left phone messages with caring thoughts, which would be a supportive boost to carry me through a tough week. The small gestures are also huge comforts -- dropping off a meal for my family, sending a toy for my son, or sending a card -- and have all been so meaningful. If you don't know what to say, it's the deeds, not words, that truly help and show you care. I am thankful for my friends who seem to know what to do or say because I know I've been guilty of not helping others by putting my foot in my mouth or even worse, saying nothing at all. At the very least, through this experience, I now know that in the future, I can be a better support to others going through hard times.