What not to say to someone who is suffering

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Painting courtesy of Mary Riesche Studios
Painting courtesy of Mary Riesche Studios

I was recently encouraged to write about the power of words; not the power of words to heal, but the power of words to harm.  Harmful words abound in many arenas, but this article only discusses such words in relation to those suffering from a serious medical condition.

Take it from me – and from others who have experienced the same reaction as me – there are certain “pithy little aphorisms” (a phrase from the article Where Words Fail, Washington Healthcare News) that should be avoided at all costs:

  1. things could be worse
  2. time heals all wounds
  3. I know exactly what you’re going through
  4. God won’t give you more than you can handle

Let me stop right there.  In the article referenced above, the author, Fred Grewe, goes so far as to say that the above biblical platitude is sadistic in nature.  Keep in mind, Mr. Grewe is a Board Certified Chaplain and he’s the one who considers that particular bible verse as such.  The person who hears it wants to say, “Are you shi_ting me?  You mean not only is my health failing greatly, but I’m also failing at what God chose to give me?  Where’s the encouragement in that?”  Let’s go on.  Number 1 in the above list is true, things could be worse than wasting away in excruciating pain with no one there to comfort me in my last few days of life on this earth, but I’m having a hard time coming up with one at the moment; maybe you could come back to me in two weeks.  Oh, wait, I’ll be dead by then.  I’ll skip over number 2, it rarely brings comfort to the person who hears it.

Number 3 is a selfish, arrogant, misinformed, bullsh_t statement that couldn’t be true even if that very same person was suffering from the very same illness as the one to which that statement was made.  Oftentimes, however, the follow-up statement goes something like this, “My dog had cancer too – it was horrible” or “I had the flu last week, I feel your pain.”

If you can’t say something truly encouraging, such as “You’ve got this” – which, by the way, is an effective, worthwhile three-word supportive comment – don’t say anything.  That’s right, shut up.  If your location prevents you from physically being with the person who is suffering to offer some sort of tangible help or encouragement – by all means, send them a card, but do so without saying something that will hurt or piss off the person who receives it.  And consider this idea: a humorous card might actually be the best panacea for that person’s shi_ty day.  I’m not suggesting you make light of a person’s suffering, but chances are they’d appreciate something that doesn’t mimic many of the sad, cookie cutter, greeting cards out there.

I say/preach all of the above not because I’ve done things perfectly in my sixty-one years of life – not by a long shot.  But I am saying the above because I don’t want people I love, and the people you love, to be on the receiving end of some powerfully harmful words.

2 thoughts on “What not to say to someone who is suffering

    notquitetheplan said:
    October 10, 2014 at 6:33 am

    Thanks for this post!


      boomer98053 responded:
      October 10, 2014 at 8:28 am

      You’re very welcome…it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine.


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