In the series “Light After Loss,” Modern Loss’s Rebecca Soffer discusses ways to navigate the long arc of grief and loss. In this article, she discusses how to comfort a friend after the diagnosis of a terminal illness.
A good friend has received a terminal diagnosis. Amid your devastation — and, moreover, theirs — it’s completely normal to fear saying or doing the wrong thing. In fact, there’s nothing easy about any of this. There are, however, ways to show up for your friend with care and with comfort. They may require strengthening your empathy muscles — those ones that enable you to forge positive and meaningful bonds with others. Here are a few ways to get you started.
Practice active listening
It’s tempting to twist your fears into a litany of reassurances. You might want to tell your friend that they are going to beat the odds. Or that scientists are going to find a cure before it’s too late. Resist the urge to prattle on with a message of positivity. Instead, listen to their disbelief, their terror, their wishes. Listen to their silence without rushing to fill it. Being an “active listener” means largely ceding the floor to the other person, curbing interruptions (be they digital notifications or just the desire to jump in), and reflecting their words back to them. There is great comfort in being heard.
But say something
Yes, we just got done telling you to prioritize listening over speaking in these situations. And we know saying nothing is easier than a conversation acknowledging that death is imminent. But saying nothing can be “selfish,” the writer Magnolia Ripkin, who is living with lung cancer, has written. “Better to be too loving than slink away into your own fear of saying the wrong thing,” she said. So speak from the heart in a way that honors your relationship and its boundaries. “I love you,” you might say to a friend (but not a boss). Or: “Whatever you are feeling is ok.”
Don’t assume he shares your beliefs or faith traditions
You may believe that prayer has the power to heal. You may believe in an afterlife that is better than this life. But not everyone does. Before you vocalize these views, it’s important to remember that your friend may not share them. Or maybe they share them, but don’t find them particularly comforting, given the circumstances. Because they are both enduring chemo and hoping to last long enough to see their daughter graduate from high school. So don’t superimpose your beliefs onto anyone else’s, and don’t pretend to know what role, if any, faith — or the lack thereof — is playing in your friend’s life right now.
Forget ‘I can’t imagine’ and try to imagine
This phrase is one of those irksome things people say to a person who is facing down something tough. It’s rarely said out of malice, but here’s why it’s unhelpful: It creates a distance between the person who is saying it and the person who is hearing it. When we “can’t imagine,” we telegraph invulnerability at a moment when the other person is feeling more vulnerable than ever; when we try to imagine, we attempt to understand someone else’s reality — and in so doing we build our empathy muscles (not just our sympathy ones).
Remember: People with a terminal illness are still living
It might sound obvious, but it’s something we too often forget. A person’s terminal illness diagnosis doesn’t supplant her personality. Their sense of humor doesn’t go away, and neither does their potential. Don’t deny your friend the agency he does have, even amid their physical decline. In addition to sitting with them through though dark moods and outbursts, it’s ok to talk to them about things other than their illness — pop culture, politics, or parenting, for example — just as you always did. In fact, it’s more than ok: Providing the space to engage with the mundane can be a huge relief.
This article was authored by Modern Loss, which offers candid conversation about grief and meaningful community throughout the long arc of loss. Learn more at modernloss.com and the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome.