Last month, Bruce Feiler wrote a feature for the Sunday New York Times Style section about what not to say to someone who is in the throes of a serious illness. Soon after reading the article, I heard Feiler discuss the same topic on Talk of the Nation. Both reading the article and listening to the discussion left me with essentially the same feeling: while he made several important points, some of it seemed a little nitpicky to me.
I do understand that Feiler himself went through an awful time not long ago with cancer diagnosis and treatment, which included both chemo and extensive surgery, and I realize how horrible this must have been for him. He’s my age, with children even younger than mine; additionally, we have a good friend in common, so although we’ve never met, I’ve been familiar with his work since he first started publishing articles and books. But I still think his approach to determining what people should and should not say to a seriously ill friend overlooks the critical point that most of the time, those of us who offer any words at all are doing our very best to say the right thing.
I feel fortunate for not having been in his situation myself, nor very many situations at all in which people expressed their regrets to me. When my father was very ill last year, I appreciated anything that anyone said about it – even though, as with Feiler’s experience, there were a few expressions of sentiment that struck me as odd. For example, my father oversees a small farming operation. When he landed in the hospital for four weeks last summer, several of our fellow townspeople said to me, “It sure will be good to see him back out on the tractor.” The reason that seemed peculiar to me is that farming isn’t exactly recreation; it’s hard work. So in a way, it was analogous to if my mother had been sick and people had said “Can’t wait to see her washing dishes again!” Unlike our neighbors, I wasn’t particularly thinking how much I wanted to see Dad out laboring in the hot sun, more just that I wanted to see him back home rather than in a hospital bed: perhaps reading or watching a ballgame.
But when I told my friend Nicole this, she had a sensible explanation. “Seeing your dad on the tractor as we drive past the farm is what we’re all used to,” she said. “It’s familiar, and therefore it’s comforting to us. People who say that really mean that they themselves will feel better when they see him back on the tractor, because a sense of normality will have returned.”
Bruce Feiler would probably point out it’s still not a helpful thing to say because if Nicole is right, the commenters are thinking about themselves and not the patient. Still, some of the points he made seemed a little murky to me. For example, Feiler told Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan that it’s fine to say “I’m thinking of you” but it’s unhelpful to say “My thoughts are with you.” I’m a professional writer, and even I am not sure I quite see the difference between those two sentiments, beyond the syntactic.
Among the worst things to say, according to Feiler, is “It will be all right.” “Not according to my oncologist!” he recommended retorting, and I can understand that; no one has the right to profess omniscience. But surely if you talk about your own feelings – in common parlance, make "I" statements, whether it’s “I’m thinking of you,” “I’m so sorry,” or “I wish I could help more” -- the recipient of your sentiments is likely to appreciate them, or, at the very least, to understand that your intentions were only to be kind. One thing I found curious about his statements was the implication that these situations happen in a vacuum – as if no one who expressed sympathy to him when he was sick had ever undergone their own catastrophic situation, and similarly as if he himself had never been on the comforting (or attempting-to-comfort) side of the equation. Even though he was only in his early 40’s and might well have been the first of his peers to be treated for cancer, surely at some point in his adulthood Feiler has had to conjure up sympathetic words for a friend or loved one. I’m curious as to whether, looking back, he’s satisfied with how he handled it at the time.
The most useful message from Feiler’s essay, in my opinion, is the reminder that saying “Tell me if there’s anything I can do to help” rings hollow; no one ever knows how to answer that honestly. Instead, he says, offer help in the form of whatever mundane tasks you need to do for yourself: take their car in for an oil change, weed their vegetable patch, check the batteries in their smoke detectors. Today’s technology has made it much easier to extend sincere offers of help, as I discovered late last month after receiving unhappy news about a casual friend’s diagnosis. Very soon after I sent a note of concern, I received an email inviting me along with several other people to sign up for a web-based service called Lotsa Helping Hands that provides a personalized calendar detailing what kind of help our friend needs and when. By the time I opened the link, other people had already signed up for the first two opportunities, but I grabbed an available spot late next week to drive her to a chemo appointment. Now I’ll receive updates any time she lists a need.
Of course, rides and casseroles only go so far. Bruce Feiler’s point remains valid: it’s helpful to know what is and isn’t useful to say when you are trying to express sympathy. I do appreciate his essay. But I hope that he too appreciates how much even those who said the wrong thing just wanted to make it clear that they cared and were trying to reach out to him. I hope he does not find himself in this situation again. But maybe another time, what they say will be more meaningful to him, whether or not they follow the rules he sets out.