What Not To Say When A Friend's Loved One Has A Terminal Illness

Sometimes well-intentioned comments make grief worse. Here's what to avoid and what to say.
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We all want to be there for the people in our lives. If you have a friend who is dealing with a loved one facing a terminal diagnosis, it is understandable that you would want to step up and offer support.

In these situations, you’re obviously trying your best to help. But unless you have gone through this on your own, you might not know what to say to others in their time of need. Sometimes your words ― however well-intended ― can backfire and have a negative impact.

“Respecting the dignity of the person whose loved one is facing terminal illness is top priority when it comes to thinking of what to say and how to behave when you’re together,” said Yocheved Golani, author of ”It’s MY Crisis and I’ll Cry if I Need To: EMPOWER Yourself to Cope With a Medical Challenge.”

Golani noted that during this time, “your thoughts, remarks and other behaviors should be fueled by a sense of compassion.”

So what exactly should you avoid when consoling someone? HuffPost surveyed grief experts, medical professionals and people who have dealt with terminal illness firsthand:

1. “My aunt had the same thing and got better.”

While it might sound optimistic or encouraging, it’s best to avoid comparison. Not every person experiences illness in the same way.

“They are not your loved one. They are a different person, with a different illness at a different time. We can’t compare people or illnesses,” said David Kessler, founder of Grief.com and author of ”The Needs of The Dying and Finding Meaning.”

2. “At least...”

“Any phrase starting with these two words ― ′at least you found out now,’ or ‘at least you have time to prepare,’ or ‘at least you have another child’ ― minimizes the pain of the current situation or circumstance at hand,” said Lisa Price, founder of Better Not Bitter Mom, an online resource for people struggling with the loss of a child.

Price, who lost her child in 2017 due to a chromosomal disorder, said using the phrase “at least” can make a person feel as if their grief isn’t valid. Instead, she recommended saying something like, “I don’t know what you are feeling, but if I can bring you any comfort by listening then I am all ears.” And then actually listen.

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3. “You’re so brave.”

Most people don’t want to hear how brave they are, said Michelle Byers, an oncology supportive care social worker with the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s Kaufman Cancer Center. So instead of saying this, focus on acknowledging how difficult this situation must be for the person in those shoes.

“Help them to see their own strengths and abilities and how they have gotten through difficult times previously. Let them know it will not be easy, but they will have the support of their family and friends,” Byers said.

4. “I know what it’s like...”

Comparison of anything you’ve experienced is not appropriate, Price said.

“It’s not about you. Even if what you’re about to compare it to is comparable, just don’t,” she said.

Instead, Price suggested asking the person what they need. “Tend to their needs in the best way you know how to support them,” she said.

5. “It’s going to be so hard to say goodbye.”

“I am certain the thought of saying goodbye has entered” a grieving person’s mind, Price said. But “even if they know a goodbye is inevitable, they probably don’t want to hear such a thing when their person is still alive or fighting for their life.”

Instead, Price said to try to encourage or guide your friend or relative toward a creative outlet that may help them sort out their feelings. Journaling, for example, can be incredibly cathartic.

6. “Look at the time you did have together.”

Most individuals in this situation aren’t initially thankful for the time they had with their loved ones, but are thinking of everything they have not been able to do yet, Byers said.

“They’re looking at the bucket list with only a few items checked off,” she said, adding that you can help by focusing on the present and helping them figure out ways to create new memories now with their loved one.

7. “People die.”

Maybe this exact phrasing is a little harsh and something people might not specifically say. However, any implication that dying is a nature part of life or something that a person should just “get over” after a while is insensitive and unhelpful.

Christian Antonoff, a marketing manager who has lost a relative to cancer, said it’s better to listen to a grieving person instead.

“Sometimes people just want to talk, to vent out, but they don’t have anyone to talk to, or they feel uncomfortable doing so,” he said. “Be there for them. Sometimes that’s enough to get someone through a difficult period.”

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8. “Did You Try This Treatment Your Doctor Didn’t Mention?”

“Don’t tell them that your friend’s second cousin was cured by juicing organic carrots,” said Anna Hulbert, a hospice and palliative care doctor at University of Missouri Health Care’s Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

She said that unless you are a specialist in new molecular cancer treatments, you probably don’t have a miracle cure to offer the person. “Focus on being a friend and let the doctors do the doctoring,” she added.

9. “They don’t look sick.”

This observation might be true, but it’s not helpful, said Joe Bakhmoutski. a cancer survivor and author of ”Simplify Cancer: Man’s Guide to Navigating the Everyday Reality of Cancer.”

“Terminal illness may affect the person in many different ways and you don’t want to make an impression that this is to be taken lightly,” he said. Instead, it helps to focus on caregiver’s feelings and ask questions ― even something simple like, “How are you doing today?”

10. “Let me know if I can do anything.”

When her husband was facing terminal brain cancer, this is the phrase that Jenny Lisk heard the most. And while she knew that the intentions behind it were good, she it wasn’t actually very helpful.

“The problem is, it places the burden of deciding what is needed on the person grieving,” said Lisk, host of the Widowed Parent Podcast. She added that someone in that position likely doesn’t know what they need and it also makes them feel like they have to do something.

“It’s much more helpful to suggest specific ways you can help or, depending on your relationship to the person, just going ahead and doing things,” Lisk said.

11. Any statement that includes the word “should.”

“When my husband was diagnosed with stage IV, metastatic cancer, I shared with a friend that he had started to tell me about his end-of-life preferences. She responded, ‘I don’t think you should be talking about that; you should be looking for treatment options,’” said Jennifer O’Brien, author of the upcoming book ”The Hospice Doctor’s Widow: A Journal.”

This caught her off guard. “My husband was a palliative care and hospice doctor. We knew, even if he didn’t die right away, he would at some point and there was no shame in discussing his preferences,” she said, adding that words of care, support, openness and compassion are more important.

12. “God only gives us as much as we can handle.”

“Don’t bring God (or any religion) into this,” said Rachel Reichblum, founder of That Good Grief, a community focused on grief and loss. This can invoke religious ideas around the pain and suffering that grieving people are going through.

“And don’t suggest that there is any rhyme or reason for someone to be diagnosed with a terminal illness,” she said. Instead, she said to go with a simple truth: “This sucks.”

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13. “They are going to a better place.”

Speaking of religious platitudes, it’s best to avoid this one too.

“Is that their belief? If it is their belief it may be fine, but many times people say that to people who may not share the same belief system,” Kessler said. “Maybe they want to stay in this place with their loved ones.”

14. “I wonder if I should get checked out.”

Maybe the person’s symptoms prompt you to think about your own, but now isn’t the time to process that with your friend.

“If you take away nothing else from this, remember this one thing: This is not about you. Don’t make it about you,” Reichblum said.

15. “Well, they did _______, which could have caused this.”

Take cancer, for example. “We do know that certain work environments, our natural environment, smoking, diet, etc. can raise a person’s risk of cancer. But it certainly does not mean they purposely caused themselves to have cancer,” Byers said.

It’s crucial to be supportive now and focus on moving forward. “Don’t constantly talk about past choices and decisions someone made, as they cannot be undone,” she said. “We need to instead relay that their loved one is making good choices now and encourage to continue doing so.”

16. Saying nothing at all.

Even though there are a lot of things you shouldn’t say, something is always better than silence, Price said. Refrain from ignoring the circumstance or situation due to your own discomfort.

“Shelf your fear, insecurity or adversity to be there for your loved one experiencing this hardship. Start a conversation versus avoiding one,” she said.


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