Last week, Deborah Orr, writing for the Guardian, put together a list of ten things not to say to someone when they’re ill. She drew from her own experience of being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. The list seems to have resonated with a lot of people, so we thought we’d put it up here for our readers. If you have more to add to the list, do let us know in the comments!
This article was published in the Guardian on 18 April 2012.
What no one ever tells you about serious illness is that it places you at the centre of a maelstrom of concerned attention from family and friends. Of course it does. That’s one of the nice things. It’s actually the only nice thing. But it’s also a rather tricky challenge, at a time when you may feel – just slightly – that you have enough on your plate. Suddenly, on top of everything else, you are required to manage the emotional requirements of all those who are dear to you, and also, weirdly, one or two people who you don’t see from one year to the next, but who suddenly decide that they really have to be at your bedside, doling out homilies, 24 hours a day…Nobody means to be intrusive or irritating. It’s all done with the finest intentions. But, God, it’s a pain. Yet by not saying 10 simple things, you too, can be the friend in need that you want to be.
1. “I feel so sorry for you”
It’s amazing, the number of people who imagine that it feels just great to be the object of pity. Don’t even say “I feel so sorry for you” with your eyes. One of my friends was just brilliant at mimicking the doleful-puppy-poor-you gaze, and when I had been subjected to a sustained bout of it, I used to crawl over to the local pub for lunch with him, just so that he could make me laugh by doing it. Don’t say “I feel so sorry for you” with your hand either. When someone patted my thigh, or silently rested their paw on it, often employing the exasperating form of cranial communication known as “sidehead” at the same time, I actually wanted to deck them. Do say: “I so wish you didn’t have to go through this ghastly time.” That acknowledges that you are still a sentient being, an active participant in your own drama, not just, all of a sudden, A Helpless Victim.
2. “If anyone can beat this, it’s you”
Funnily enough, it’s not comforting to be told that you have to go into battle with your disease, like some kind of medieval knight on a romantic quest. Submitting to medical science, in the hope of a cure, is just that – a submission. The idea that illness is a character test, with recovery as a reward for the valiant, is glib to the point of insult. Do say: “My mum had this 20 years ago, and she’s in Bengal now, travelling with an acrobatic circus.” (Though not if that isn’t true.)
3. “You’re looking well”
One doesn’t want to be told that one’s privations are invisible to the naked eye. Anyway, one is never too ill to look in a mirror, and see a great big moon-face, bloated with steroids and sporting the bright red panda eyes that are triggered by that most aggressive and efficient of breast-cancer drugs, Docetaxel. I knew I looked like death warmed up, not least because I felt like death warmed up. Nobody wants to be patronised with ridiculous lies. They are embarrassing for both speaker and listener. If your sick pal wants to discuss her appearance, she’ll ask you what you reckon. It’ll be a leading question, so take your cue from her.
4. “You’re looking terrible”
I know it sounds improbable. But people really did feel the need to reassure me that my hideousness was plain to see. One person told me that while I’d put on a lot of weight, I’d of course be able to go on a diet as soon as I was better. I wouldn’t have minded quite so much, if she hadn’t arrived bearing a giant mound of snacks and cakes, a great, indiscriminate pile of stuff that suggested she’d been awarded four minutes in Whole Foods by Dale Winton, in a nightmarish haute-bourgeois version of Supermarket Sweep. And, in fact, I haven’t gone on a diet. Somehow, being a size 10 doesn’t seem tremendously important any longer. On the other hand, when I said: “Don’t I look monstrous?” I was asking people to help me to laugh at myself – which many did – and to tell me that this too would pass. One of my friends took photographs of me, behind a curtain in the hospital, looking comically interfered with by surgeons, and festooned with tubes and drains full of bloody fluid. We laughed so much that I probably came nearer to death right then than at any other point.
Have you had equally bad conversations about your illness? Is there something else you wish people hadn’t said to you when you were ill? Or it may be that you actually appreciated all the attention. Let us know in the comments below!