How do you help someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness?
The temptation is to cheerlead. That entire cancer lexicon can be so damaging:
“No negative thoughts.”
“Hold a positive outcome in your head.”
All of that is valid and I’m not saying don’t do it. What I am saying is that we need to let the patient lead.
Ask them, “What is going to be useful right now? I am more than happy to break out the pompoms and be incredibly positive, help you focus on beating this or living your best life alongside this. I’m also happy to hear if it’s scary. I’m here to hear how much you hate it and how angry you are. I will absolutely meet you whatever and wherever you are.”
If you’re not sure how your support is landing – check in with your person. Never assume. Sometimes just naming it makes things easier. Something like (in your own words): “I’m trying whatever I can to help you feel loved and supported. I’m not sure if what I’m doing feels good to you or not, and I’d love to check in about it. I’m 100% willing hear what helps you feel heard and supported and what maybe doesn’t help at all.”
Remember, if you say something you wish you hadn’t, it’s OK to acknowledge it and start again. Watch this video for more help with the do-over.
The skills we need to support people after a death are the same skills we need to show up for any challenging life experience: show up, listen, don’t fix.
Cancer and other health issues are such big, scary things – it makes sense that we’d lean on cheerleading and positive thinking, hoping to shrink it down to something less scary and more surmountable.
Thing is, we don’t know the outcome of anything until we know an outcome (omniscient predictions aren’t helpful).
Thing is, you don’t know what someone needs to hear unless you check in with them (maybe they want to hold only positive thoughts, maybe they don’t).
Thing is, most people don’t need solutions, they need to be heard (some things just well and truly suck and there is no solution).
In grief, in illness, in challenges of any kind – let the person at the center of the maelstrom lead. Meet them where they are, wherever they are.
How about you? How do you respond when someone shares big, difficult news with you? How do you wish people would responsd when you share hard news with them? Let us know in the comments.The skills we need to support people after a death are the same skills we need to show up for any challenging life experience: show up, listen, don't fix. Click To Tweet
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