What do I say to someone who has a terminal diagnosis?
July 15th, 2020
Our presence is always the thing that we have to offer each other. Just human presence, to listen to support and to not feel that we have to fix it. Not trying to put a silver lining on it, sitting in the cloud together and not trying to un-sad someone. Reflect for yourself what makes you feel best supported when you're having a really hard time, and it's usually just people showing up for us and showing that they care. Think about the person as a whole being, thinking about what they love and showing them that support is really all we can do. Where we fail sometimes is when we try to solve problems for people that are truly unsolvable. Letting people be hurt by pain and being there as a resilient surface to catch them is all we can truly ask of ourselves.
July 15th, 2020
Perhaps I should start with what you should not say. I, at one point, was facing a terminal diagnosis, or at the very least, a metastatic cancer diagnosis. There was a long time when it was very possible that I would not make it and I very distinctly recall a number of things that I did not like hearing.
One of those things is you're going to be fine or it's all going to be okay. I can't underscore enough that you should absolutely avoid saying those words. I understand that it is coming from a good place. You want to reassure someone that it will be okay because you want it to be okay. But unfortunately, it's impossible to, with honesty, offer that reassurance. And no one is more aware of that than the person facing the terminal diagnosis.
Similarly, I would avoid sharing anecdotes like, "hey, my colleague was just diagnosed with cancer and he beat it". Often the first thing you think as someone with a terminal diagnosis is, "well, that situation is nothing like mine". So avoid anecdotes, unless you can speak with absolute certainty that, yes, you know that the two people you're comparing are genetically identical and are facing the same stage of the same exact type of disease, which is of course impossible.
You also don't want to say nothing. Saying nothing exacerbates the gravity and the heaviness of the situation. What I have done in the past when I struggled to find something to say is simply tell the person how you feel about them. It would be powerful enough just to tell them that you love them and it's critical to also tell them that you're there, and you'll be there.
The reason I say that is because it is such a lonely feeling. When you're considering that you might die, the world just kind of recedes. And it feels as if you're the only one left and you feel as if no one could possibly relate to what you're feeling. So something as simple as being told, hey, I'm here, I'm not going anywhere, is really powerful. Because unfortunately, a lot of people do go away. A lot of people are uncomfortable with death, obviously. Some of your better friends will end up disappointing you. But conversely, some of your more casual friends will end up impressing you and stepping up in ways that you maybe didn't anticipate. Telling someone you're there and you will continue to be there is really, really powerful.
The last thing is to be specific in how you want to help. Just as it's cliche to say it's going to be okay, it's also cliche to say, whatever you need, I'm here for you. Well, that just puts the onus on the person dying and you don't want to do that. You don't want that person to have to think about what he or she might need from you. Lead with how you can help. It could be the most trivial thing, like watching TV with them or bringing dinner.