As we get older, the terms Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s and cancer seem to appear more and more frequently in our daily conversations -- yet, these illnesses don’t get any easier to talk about -- and the reactions to such diagnoses can often be anything but helpful.
For Emily Blatchford, it was when her father was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer she witnessed the extent to which such reactions occurred. She was 24 years old.
“The one I dreaded most was the over exaggerated, sad-eyed look, where they would just kind of stare at me, like they pitied me, it was really uncomfortable,” Blatchford said.
Jill Crookes, a counselling psychologist explains this type of reaction is common in the face of bad news as we generally feel extremely helpless and disempowered.
“There’s a feeling of helplessness and fear of saying the wrong thing,” Crookes told The Huffington Post Australia.
It also tweaks at our own personal vulnerability, because we are not a society that talks about illness or death and as a result, we get tense and end up responding in a really unnatural way.
“However, you will find that most human beings do actually want to talk about their pain,” Crookes said.
Crookes said while there is no one prescription of what to say as it will depend on the person and situation, there are definitely things you should steer clear of.
“Avoid the usual platitudes like -- ‘everything happens for a reason’ and ‘I know how you feel’ -- these words are meaningless and the person suffering is only hearing that you want to get out of there as quickly as you can,” Crookes said.
Blatchford explains the most insulting reaction she experienced was when somebody recommended her father try a natural remedy.
“My dad was going through aggressive chemotherapy -- did they not think we’d exhausted all possible medical avenues?” Blatchford said.
“I know they were probably trying to help, but it felt like they weren’t taking into account the seriousness of it,” Blatchford said.
She said it was helpful when people were proactive and asked what the next step was.
Crookes recommends sticking to the less is more rule however, acknowledges that admitting you don’t know what to say is perfectly legitimate too.
Annie Cantwell Bartl, a grief and loss consultant psychologist agrees.
“Telling the person you are sorry and shocked is okay, after all if you are shocked, the person whose family member has been diagnosed will more than likely be even more shocked than you -- so there is some solidarity there,” Cantwell-Bartl told The Huffington Post Australia.
Blatchford recalls the time she told her best friend of her father’s diagnosis. “She just burst into tears and kept sobbing and saying sorry because I should be the one crying, not her -- but it was fine, because she was being completely genuine,” she said.
The worst thing you can do is pretend it’s not happening. Generally people will want to talk about it however, if they don’t you will pick up on that quite quickly.
“Start by asking them how they are going,” Cantwell-Bartl said.
It’s important to follow the other person’s lead, rather than trying to say something to “fix” the situation.
“People will tell you as much as they want to convey if they feel you are interested and caring,” Cantwell-Bartl said.
And if they change the subject quite quickly that’s usually a good indication they’re not ready to talk. In which case, you can offer to help in a practical way for instance, by offering to feed the pets or help out in some way around the house.
“Offering to help in a practical way is a nice thing to do, as long as it’s done in a heartfelt way, so it doesn’t look like you are trying to avoid the situation altogether,” Cantwell-Bartl said.
Finally, just being with somebody and simply listening to them speaks volumes. Remember you are both human beings at the end of the day, which is why it is important they know you are listening from a genuine and caring place -- not a place of pity.
“One of the most helpful but difficult things you can do is simply sit with them and accept their pain with them,” Crookes said.