When Deborah Orr was diagnosed with cancer, she learned that there are ten things you should never, ever say to someone when they’re sick:-
1. “I feel so sorry for you.” Don’t say it with words. Don’t even say it with your eyes. Or with your hand (by patting the patient on the thigh). Who wants to be made to feel like an object of pity; a helpless victim? What you must say is, “”I so wish you didn’t have to go through this ghastly time.”
2. “If anyone can beat this, it’s you.” The experience of serious illness is not like that of a medieval knight going into battle. It is, rather one of submission to medical science, in the hope of a cure. So what you must say is, “My mum had this 20 years ago, and she’s in Bengal now, travelling with an acrobatic circus.” (But only if it’s true).
3. “You’re looking well.” This is likely to be untrue. And even if it were true, who can tell what pain lies beneath a robust countenance? You must not discuss the patient’s appearance unless s/he asks you to.
4. “You’re looking terrible.” Who wants to be reminded of how hideous they look? You must wait until the patient says, “Don’t I look monstrous?”, and then laugh about it together.
5. “Let me know the results.” The patient wil not want to broadcast test results the moment they come out. You must give him/her control over how, when, and to whom such news is spread.
6. “Whatever I can do to help.” Everybody says it, so it’s boring. Moroever, it’s saddling the patient with yet another thing to worry about – the task of thinking up something for you to do. You must accurately predict the patient’s needs, and offer something appropriate, such as “Can I pick the children up from school on Tuesdays?”
7. “Oh no, your worries are unfounded.” The trouble with this one is that the patient’s worries may be very well-founded. When the patient voices a fear, you must not brush it under the carpet; you must let them talk about it.
8. “What does chemotherapy (for example) feel like?” You must not pander to your curiosity by asking the patient about his/her procedures or symptoms. You must wait for them to bring the subject up.
9. “I really must see you.” You mustn’t say this, especially if it involves some lengthy explanations of how very busy you are, and how very important their intended meeting with you is. The best thing to say is, “”I’ve got tickets to the theatre on the 25th. Tell me on the day if you can face it.”
10. “I’m so terribly upset about your condition.” The implication here is, “I can’t cope without you.” If you say this, you are making yourself into a bigger victim of the illness than the patient, and that’s not fair. What you must do, if you’re too upset to speak to your friend, is to send cards, flowers, or presents.
Well, I realise that Deborah Orr’s Decalogue is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as is my precis of it. And I also realise it draws attention to some real hazards and pitfalls. But many of us are already so scared of putting our foot in it when talking to any ill friend that this list of ‘Don’ts’ makes us not want to do it at all.
Fortunately, she ends her article by cheerfully undermining her own Ten Commandments:-
If you recognise things that you have said or done yourself within this list, don’t feel bad about it, at all. I most certainly have, and I’ve said and done much, much worse too; it took being on the receiving end before I realised what it could feel like. The thing is this: giant illness is a time of great intensity, and even the most cack-handed expressions of support or love are better than a smack in the face with a wet tea-towel. People feel helpless when they see that their friend is suffering. Sometimes – often – they say the wrong thing. But they are there, doing the best that they can, at a terrible, abject time. That’s the most important thing of all. I look back on those grisly moments of ineptitude and clumsiness with exasperated amusement and tender, despairing, deep, deep fondness. The great lesson I learned from having cancer, was how splendid my friends were, whatever their odd little longueurs. They all, in their different ways, let me know that they loved me, and that is the most helpful thing of all. I’m so lucky to have them.
That’s better. I can live with that.