Friday, November 12, 2010

the right thing to say

Yesterday, one of my relatives discovered that he is dying. 

I think all I can do is examine this situation from my perspective, as selfish as that may seem. I can try to imagine what he and his children and wife and father and brothers and sisters and friends are going through, but I will never know, no matter how hard I try. I have not experienced somebody close to me dying; even if I had, my experience would be different to theirs. I desperately want to be supportive and sympathetic, but I am paralysed by the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing; of making the situation worse, if that is even possible.

This paralysis is something I struggle with constantly, albeit on a much smaller scale. I have an acute and debilitating awareness of the effect my words or actions may have upon others. Before I say something, I practice in my head first, which means that I take too long to react to things. Sometimes I don't say anything at all, because the delay is so drawn out that the moment passes. It reaches the point where I have to ignore that warning voice in my head, in order to function. So I say the wrong thing, after all. To put it simply, I am awkward. I am not one of those people who seem to know, instinctively, how to comfort somebody in their time of need. I am drawn to those people; I think I have a subconscious desire to absorb some of their emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, it is not contagious. 

I read an article by Christopher Hitchens today. It was timely. Christopher is one of my favourite authors, and he is dying of cancer. Stage four, metastatic, esophageal cancer. He writes a monthly column for Vanity Fair and his latest, "Miss Manners and the Big C", is the one I read today. Christopher writes: 

I recently had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to attend my niece’s wedding, in my old hometown and former university in Oxford. This depressed me for more than one reason, and an especially close friend inquired, “Is it that you’re afraid you’ll never see England again?” As it happens he was exactly right to ask, and it had been precisely that which had been bothering me, but I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness. I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it, too. And yet I had absolutely invited the question. Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I’d had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of “management,” I again had the wind knocked out of me when she said, “Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go.” How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself. But again there was the unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable. 

When my grandmother died, two acquaintances' reactions were etched into my mother's memory. One was that of a work colleague who said, "but she was sick for a long time, wasn't she?" The other was a lady my mother knew briefly, whose son was in my brother's class at school. Although they were not close, she knew exactly what to do. She did not say anything; she simply hugged her. And that, my mother told me, was the most perfect thing anybody did for her.

So maybe it is not a matter of constructing the right thing to say, nor avoiding the wrong thing to say. It could just be enough to offer sympathy, in the most unselfish way possible. Not to attempt to understand how they are feeling or what they are thinking, but to show them that we care and that we are sorry that this awful thing has happened to them. To acknowledge that life is unfair. It is unkind. Terrible things happen to good people. We don't need to convey that sentiment with words. Most things - the most important things, at least - don't need to be said. Just a look, a hug or a clasping of hands can be enough. Or even pure presence. Just being there can express, in an unspoken language: We are on separate journeys, but you are not alone. I love you. 


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean Laura, I try to think of the proper thing to say, but it always sounds false and not me, so I say sorry and hug them. That's the most I can do, otherwise I'll just stumble and be awkward about it. Just be there, that's really all you can do, it doesn't matter that you don't have the right words...Love, Jules

ctran85 said...

I'm really awkward in these cases also. But having been on the other side of this, I do agree that some gesture is better than none. Perhaps baking them something? Perhaps a casserole for the family so that they don't have to worry about dinner for the night. Or cookies. I think something like this shows that you know and you care, but they don't have to talk about it to you if they're not comfortable with it.

Anonymous said...

I think the key is to help without asking, and therefore without them feeling like they should say no, or have to talk to you about it. Cook them a meal. Drop off some groceries. Take the kids out to a movie, walk the dog, mow the lawn, anything that makes their life easier at this difficult, difficult time. They'll know you care.

allanah said...

I love, "we are on separate journeys but you are not alone". This is such a simple statement but so very true.
I think, in this case, actions definitely speak louder than words and that any loving gesture will be greatly appreciated by your family.

Joni said...

Laura, I think you've reached the right conclusion. Having been on the other side of things myself, the best thing that someone can do is say something along the lines of "I'm really sorry to hear that, please let me know if there's anything I can do" and then give you a hug.

I don't think there is a right thing to say or do in these circumstances, but simply making your presence known is often enough.

Laura Valerie said...

Thank you all so much for your kindness and wisdom. I really appreciate it :) xx

Anonymous said...

I think most of us feel awkward to be honest - and when you think about it so we should, only because these are fragile and awkward moments which nobody can ever prepare for. The main thing is I think not the first reaction (unless it is hideous) but how you react and support in the longer term; staying by the person, looking out for them, staying in touch.

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