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What Not to Say When There is Nothing to Say

Recently, I was asked for advice about how to respond to the parents of a child diagnosed with cancer.

First, there are no magic words, so don’t try to find them. When one is at the start of a long, twisted road that includes the potential mortality of their child, words simply cannot soothe. They can, however, aggravate. So I thought it might be helpful to look at some things that struck us the wrong way when we were facing our crisis.

  1. Do not equate anything you’ve gone through (or had a third cousin go through) with their situation. This is an immediate conversation ender. We once had someone compare a month-long sinus infection to Kylie’s cancer.
  2. One of the most frequent things we heard was, “What can I do?” No matter how sincere the offer, this can add stress to an already stressful situation. The parent of a recently diagnosed child has no idea what day it is or if they remembered to change their underwear for the past two weeks, so they will most likely have trouble assigning tasks to the three dozen people who have asked. Vague offers of help often muddle already murky waters.
  3. By far the worst statement I got was, “I know how you feel.” Uh, no you don’t. Get back to me when you watch the rise and fall of your child’s chest wondering if it will stop during the night. And even if you have been there, your feelings and mine are totally different things.
  4. Watch your quantity of words. Parents in this situation have a maximum amount they can absorb before they shut down. Doctors usually fill that bucket daily.
  5. Persistence can be irritating. There were weeks that passed when we simply couldn’t answer texts and emails. It didn’t mean anything other than our focus was on Kylie’s treatment. A second or third text reminding us of the original only made us feel bad for our inability to balance everything.
  6. Don’t expect to assume a role that you didn’t have before diagnosis. It is okay to offer – especially if you have dealt with similar issues. Just don’t expect it or offer repeatedly.
  7. Don’t badger for information. We would have loved to have known specifics, time frames, and end dates. Unfortunately, these often don’t exist in the cancer game, and constant demands for information can remind a parent of their helplessness.
  8. If you made an offer that wasn’t accepted, please understand it may be wanted or needed and simply came at the wrong time. Don’t be offended or press for an answer. If the parent needs it, they will most likely return to it eventually.
  9. “No” is a perfectly valid answer that people must be prepared to accept without justification or hurt feelings. The parents do not need added drama in their life and shouldn’t be forced to manage the emotions of others.

This list is not exhaustive, and I can only speak for my family. I think you will find it interesting that while we experienced all of the above, not a single cancer family ever did any of them. Never.