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When I Said the 'Wrong' Thing to a Cancer Patient's Parent

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It was just before Christmas and my son was in the hospital for a suspected virus. A local church was holding a gift bazaar in a conference room of the hospital so all the kids who were hospitalized at Christmas time could pick gifts for their family members and have them wrapped. I stood in the wrapping line and struck up a conversation with the woman next to me. We swapped stories of why our children were in the hospital. She told me her daughter was a cancer patient and that she had been in the hospital three weeks out of every month since spring.

I gasped, “Oh my gosh, that’s awful, I’m so sorry!”

The woman looked stricken. I realized too late my dramatic reaction was like an assault to her. In a bitter irony, not even a month later it was my child on the oncology floor fighting cancer. I learned then a whole list of well-meaning phrases that don’t always sit well with parents of sick kids.

Here are some of the phrases that struck a nerve:

  • This too shall pass.
  • God won’t give you more than you can handle.
  • You’re so strong.
  • I could never do what you’re doing.
  • My cousin (or aunt or other distant relative) had that same thing.
  • I know how you feel.
  • He’s so lucky to have you as his parents.
  • Is this terminal?
  • I’m worried about you.
  • You look tired.
  • Have you tried essential oils (or marijuana or alternative medicine)?

What to say instead:

  • Do you want company?
  • Could I bring you coffee or a snack?
  • I can give you a break if you need a nap.
  • I can listen if you want to talk, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
  • What can I pray for?
  • We care about you all.
  • Can I bring you a meal?
  • I can help with ___ (be specific).

It’s easy to stick your foot in your mouth and say the wrong thing, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right. The really important thing is to be there for them and give support throughout the duration of the illness.

Lead image via Thinkstock.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one phrase you wish people would stop saying about your (or a loved one’s) disability, disease or mental illness? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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