5 ‘Supportive’ Things Not to Say to Someone With a Terminally Ill Relative

People mean well. When you have a relative with a terminal illness, you depend on family and friends to lean on and support you. Sometimes, those people say things that are ultimately unhelpful, primarily because they are at a loss and want to say something. What follows are five things that were said to me when my mother had brain cancer that were actually more damaging than supportive, even though I know my friends and family said them with the best intentions.

girl wearing sports jersey with arm around mom
Kara and her mom.

1.  “You’re so strong.”

When my mom was dying of brain cancer, I had so many well-intentioned friends and family members tell me I was so strong, if anyone could handle it I could, and that I was the strongest person they knew. The truth was, I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to break down, to tell someone how I really felt. I wanted to not have to be the strong one for once; I wanted to be able to lean on someone for support and strength instead of generating it on my own. Instead, I wish someone had said, “You don’t have to be so strong all the time. It’s OK to break down. I’ll be there for you to lean on.”

2. “It’s going to be OK.”

No, it’s not. The prognosis is bleak, and living in denial is maddening. Well-meaning friends and relatives may have wanted to reassure themselves, as well as me, that things would turn out OK. But I knew they wouldn’t. I was losing my mom, and nothing would ever be OK about that. Instead you can say, “What is happening is unfair and not OK. I’m here if you want to talk.”

3. “At least she…”

Can still think clearly. Can still walk. Doesn’t have XYZ-type cancer. I think this type of talk is invalidating. Everyone has their own journey, with ups and downs, highs and lows. There is no need to compare my journey with the journey of someone else. I know you might be trying to look on the bright side, but that is diminishing my own experience. Instead you can say, “I’m so sorry that she is suffering. This must be really hard. How can I help?”

woman on bed with her daughter
Kara and her mom.

4. “Everything happens for a reason.”

The last thing I want to hear as someone with a terminally ill relative is that everything happens for a reason. Because while I watch the hair loss, the loss of mobility, the incontinence, the suffering — I really don’t believe there is a good reason for this to be happening. It sucks, plain and simple. Instead you can say, “It is terrible that this is happening. Life can be brutal and unfair. I am here to listen.”

5. “Well, we all have to go sometime. It’s all in God’s plan.”

I didn’t want to hear it was time for my loved one to leave the planet. In fact, hearing that it’s God’s plan can leave me with a feeling of anger or resentment towards God for “choosing” for them to suffer. Hearing we all have to go sometime doesn’t make it easier when that time is upon me. Everyone’s journey of grief is different, and the fact that we all have to go sometime does not mitigate my pain. Instead you can say, “If you want to talk about how it feels losing someone you love, I am here to listen.”

What people need most when a loved one is terminally ill is your presence and support. Sometimes, just a long hug or a listening ear is what the person needs most. You don’t always have to say something; just being there is enough.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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