We were walking along the Canal St. Martin, back from our favorite bakery, when Mom felt a lump in her armpit. It was her last day in Paris, and the first day she discovered she had cancer.
That was my first year in college, and since then, I’ve learned a lot — everything from Plato to Impressionism to Goethe to French politics. But that nowhere nears the importance of what I’ve learned about cancer and endless hospitals visits and what it’s like to walk with someone through the proverbial dark tunnel, a tunnel where death is omnipresent and the light we carry flickers, apt to go out at a moment’s notice.
She’s been in and out of the hospital ever since she returned from France, and she’s had loads of visitors. From guilt-ridden, nervous aunties from the Middle West to close friends she’s had since childhood, all of her visitors love her and want the best for her. But some don’t quite know what that means. What is best for her? I’ll admit I didn’t really know how to act at first. It’s always a surprise when someone close to you becomes entirely vulnerable, bald, seemingly ever on a hospital bed, their life entirely changed.
What does one say? What can one say without being insensitive or unhelpful or, the worst of the worst, negative?
It’s a tricky maze to navigate, but there are things to say, conversations to start, memories to conjure that will make your presence bright and your visits beloved. Here’s a brief guide of what to say, coming from way too much experience:
“I’m here for you and entirely at your disposal.”
Don’t say, “What can I do to help?” This is vague and almost never actually helpful. It makes him/her feel pressured to think of something so you’ll get to do something to feel better about yourself. Instead, show that you’ll always be reachable, that you’d honestly do anything for them. But you’d better mean it. The friends and family who make themselves this available are the ones who get the late night, teary-eyed phone calls, who have to act as guide through the toughest times and show that life is still worth living, even when it’s hell.
“Tell me about that time…”
Pain comes from needles and physical discomfort but also from hopelessness and a worldview entirely rooted in the illness at hand. Ask about travel, falling in love, big life moments that put their minds both on past pleasures and future plans.
“There are so many people that love you.”
Mom sometimes feels entirely undeserving of love since she’s been diagnosed. It’s an odd phenomenon. You’d think that the sick and vulnerable would be clamoring for sympathy, but often many feel that they’re an emotional drain on those around them — that they’re unworthy of other people’s time or visits or even thoughts. A simple reassurance of the truth goes a long way: that they’re loved, that they’ve an entire army of people who love them across the city, the country, the world.
Whether you believe in cosmic justice or god or if you stand on the side of optimism or cynicism, you should put some real thought into the letter correspondence between the famous French and Swiss philosophers, Voltaire and Rousseau. Voltaire, ever the pessimist, says that since the world is full of evil god must be unjust. Rousseau, a philosophical optimist, rebuts Voltaire, ending his letter with this:
“I cannot prevent myself, Monsieur, from noting a strange contrast between you and me as regards the subject of this letter. Satiated with glory and disabused of vanity, you live free in the midst of affluence. Certain of your immortality, you peacefully philosophize on the nature of the soul and, if your body or heart suffer, you have Tronchin as doctor and friend. You however find only evil on earth. And I, an obscure, poor and lonely man, tormented with an incurable illness – I contemplate with pleasure in my seclusion and find that all is well. What is the source of this apparent contradiction?
You explained it yourself: you enjoy, but I hope — and hope beautifies everything.”
It’s one of the finest defenses of pure hope, and Rousseau’s optimism, even in the face of poverty, loneliness, and incurable sickness holds obvious and powerful application to anyone with serious illness.
“This will all be just a blip when we look back on it.”
Contextualizing their pain within the greater scheme of their life is unbelievably important. You don’t want to say, “You’ll be great soon,” but, instead, drop a reminder that this illness doesn’t constitute their identity, that their lives are so much grander, that they’ve enjoyed life before and they’ll enjoy it later. And that lovely “we.” It can be infantilizing if done wrong (“how we doing today?”), but when used correctly it’s implicitly binding, their pain is your pain, their cares are your cares.
“Don’t worry about keeping me in the loop.”
The last thing you want to be is a burden. But that’s exactly what you are if you’re endlessly calling and emailing. Asking “Are you okay, what’s going on?” comes from a good place — from genuine caring — but the last thing someone who’s really sick wants to do is keep their entire extended social network updated on every surgery and doctor’s visit. Even with close friends, it’s difficult information to share. It’s tough to admit that your body is failing you and that you don’t know what will happen next. Plus, more practically, it’s time-consuming and just plain tiring to keep everyone in the loop. Instead, show your care by doing any of the aforementioned or by simply saying:
“I’m going to clean, bring, help with…”
Accomplishing a task, be it grocery shopping or cooking dinner or picking up the kids from school, will be almost uniformly appreciated. You’re making their life easier during a particularly tough time. It’s practical, de-stressing, and shows you love them. You should say “I love you” — there are few words that work as many wonders as these — but you don’t always have to. Sometimes showing your love is even more appreciated.
P.S. And, honestly, when in doubt, do what my mom and I do and just listen Mozart. This clarinet concerto sounds like mercy and otherworldly beauty cutting through a dark world.
P.P.S. And thanks to Olivia Gonzalez for digging up that choice Rousseau quote.