I can still vividly remember the moment my mum first told me my dad was sick – I was standing in the media office at my university, editing the travel pages for the student newspaper. I was feeling really pleased because I had found the perfect sized photo of Hong Kong to fit the gap on the page and I looked down and saw my phone was ringing. I’m not going to pretend I’m psychic, and as clichéd as it sounds, in that moment, I just knew something bad was going to happen. Why else would my mum be calling me at 2pm on a Friday?
The next few days were a blur of medical scans, fuzzy grey masses and twisting hospital corridors. When my family emerged the other side, as dazed as if we’d been hit by a truck, we knew it was time to start telling people. This is what I’ve learnt since…
1. It might take us a while to bring it up, but it’s nothing personal and no assessment on the importance of our friendship. My closest friends already knew what had happened — they had been the ones to scrape me off the floor when I heard — but most didn’t, and this was the hardest part. Finding a way to slip it into conversation was tricky. “Hi, do you mind if we don’t make small talk about the colour you’re painting your flat? My dad has cancer and I can’t think about anything else” is hardly the most tactful way to bring it up.
2. Don’t disappear. When you don’t know what to say, it can be easier to just say nothing at all. I get it. I wish it wasn’t happening either and I wish I could disappear too, but I can’t and if you’re a friend you shouldn’t either. I can only speak from experience, but grief makes you feel like you are standing alone in a black cloud whilst everyone around you continues on with their lives, unable to see that everything has suddenly gone monochrome. You can’t understand why the world hasn’t stopped spinning, and seeing everyone carry on as normal is as painful as a thousand tiny paper cuts.
3. Texts, emails, phone calls – any communication is better than no communication. Check in and keep checking in. Saying ‘call me if you need anything’ is all well and good, but chances are they won’t, because they’ll be too embarrassed to ask for help when they need it the most.
4. When you do talk to them, don’t be afraid to ask how they, and their family, are doing. Cancer is a horrible topic of conversation, so it’s understandable that it’d be pretty high on the list of things to avoid chatting about over coffee. But when a relative has cancer, sometimes it can be all you want to talk about. So don’t shy away from it. It’s more hurtful when people ask about everything else under the sun — “How’s your job? Your flat? Your new spider plant?” — because they’re too awkward to say, “Hey, how’s your dad?”
5. But sometimes all we want is someone to be silent with. Yes, I know that sounds perverse, but hear me out. Cancer can be a long slog — months of appointments, weeks of chemo, and talking about it all the time would be exhausting. Sometimes you just don’t want to answer ‘How is your dad doing?’ for the eighth time that day. So if they say they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push them. Try changing the conversation to take their mind off things, or just be there to watch a movie with them.
6. Be careful what you do say. It’s understandable to try and empathise, but sometimes the most well meaning of phrases can come across as crass and insensitive. Don’t compare this to the time your dog died (I feel like this should go without saying, but you’d be surprised). Don’t tell them about your uncle who had a similar cancer (particularly not if they then died) and don’t try and compare your grief to theirs. Even if you know the person, don’t make this about you. Don’t bring up the past like it makes up for what is happening now — “they had a good life” and “they were a good age” doesn’t make it any better. It is always too young to lose someone you love.
7. “He’s a fighter” and “he’ll beat it” can be just as difficult to stomach. Of course he’s a fighter, but when it’s a terminal illness, phrases like this entirely miss the point, no matter how well intentioned. Herbal remedies are also not a helpful suggestion. I kid you not, someone told my mother — with a straight face — “Well, have you tried baking soda?” We still aren’t sure whether she meant for my dad to ingest it or bathe in it.
8. Other clichés to avoid: cards with flowers on them and anything that has ‘with sympathy’ in a curly golden font. You’d be surprised how many people rely on things like this when they just don’t know what to say, but it can lack that personal touch. It reached a point where I would play “sympathy card bingo” with the envelopes flooding through the door. Leave your sad eyes at the door too — I know this is hard, but I don’t need to see it written all over your face.
9. Try not to take the mood swings personally. I probably owe my friends an apology for the extreme mood swings I have had over the past three months; from angry, to depressed, to manically high. But true friends will get that is a natural part of the grieving process.
10. But, there is no one size fits all answer. Truly there is no phrase book or ‘how to guide’ when it comes to coping with cancer and there is nothing that can be said that will make it okay. The best thing to do is be understanding.
11. Above all, if you really don’t know what to say, baked goods and a shoulder to cry on are a pretty solid fail safe.
Adrienne Betteley, Specialist End of Life Advisor at Macmillan Cancer Support also has some words of advice:
“When a friend has a terminally ill relative, it can feel like their whole world has collapsed. They may feel overwhelmed with feelings of shock, anger, sadness, and guilt and it can be hard to know how to help them through these dark times. You could encourage them to talk about their feelings and remind them they may already be grieving for the person they are going to lose. Some days they may feel so sad that they can think of nothing else but their ill relative. Other days they may feel they can function normally and may not think about that person much. They shouldn’t feel guilty about this or that they must be sad all the time. It’s OK if they want to do normal things – spend time with friends, watch a film, or enjoy a meal.
“You could encourage your friend to write down their feelings in a diary or help them with practical tasks. Can you make them dinner or take them to see their family? Do encourage them to get professional help too. They may want to join a support group or speak to a counsellor. Keep an eye on your friend and if they are neglecting themselves or experiencing physical symptoms like loss of appetite, hair loss, skin problems or they are showing signs of depression or anxiety, you should encourage them to see their GP. Macmillan has a range of ways to help people whose relatives have cancer including a website with information a helpline staffed by nurses. You can also download Macmillan’s booklets After someone dies: coping with bereavement or End of Life: A Guidehere.”
Via : cosmopolitan