When a friend loses a loved one to cancer, it can be hard to know what to say. What do you say to a person in mourning? How can you comfort them? What can you possibly say that won’t sound empty and lame?

A wonderful article by Susan Silk called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” discussed what to say to whom. The idea is that you should “Comfort in – dump out.” If you are the friend of the patient, you don’t get to tell the patient’s husband how hard this is for you. You can say that to a friend, or a coworker, but not to the person closer to the patient that you are. People closer to the patient that you get comfort and support. If you need to vent or cry, you only get to do that to people less close to the patient that you. This is a wonderful model to sue, because while we don’t want to build a hierarchy of who gets to grieve, it is important to understand where you are in relation to the other people suffering. One way we can be supportive is by simply being there to offer support.

What Not to Say

She’s in a better place 

I was talking to a friend who recently lost her mother-in-law to cancer. They were very close, and the short time between diagnosis and death was dizzying.  Knowing my friend was religious, many of her friends tried to comfort her by saying, “She’s in a better place.” When I asked her about it, she rolled her eyes. “Ugh,” she said. “Do NOT tell me my loved one is in a better place. I’m a person of faith, and I believe that ultimately she is in a better place, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still angry and devastated. Believing that I will see her again one day doesn’t mean I don’t miss her terribly now.”

A grieving family member may have a semblance of gratitude that their loved one is no longer in physical pain, but ultimately, they wish they were alive and healthy. Now, if the grieving person is the one saying that they are in a better place, you should not correct them – if this brings them comfort, they get to say it all they want.

She is here

This is a scenario we see played out in movies all the time.

Person A: I miss her so much. I wish she were here.

Person B: (Places comforting hand on Person A’s shoulder and smiles.) She is here.

Here’s the thing. She’s not. That’s why Person A is sad.

If you feel the presence of your deceased loved one in the gentle breeze, or the rush of the water from the ocean, or in the brilliance of a rainbow, that’s wonderful. You deserve that, and should continue to be comforted by it. But Person A doesn’t want to feel her in the breeze. They want her physical presence.

So What Do You Say?

While “I’m sorry” may feel like not enough, it can be just right. If you want your friend to feel supported, simple affirmations of their feelings are often the best things to say.

“I know you miss her.”

“I’m so sorry she’s not here.”

“I wish she were here too.”

Grief, when allowed, can be self-healing. Don’t negate someone’s grief by trying to make it better. Allowing them to sit in it, while providing support, can be the best thing you can do for them.

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