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Words that Wound, Words that Heal


Words have power

Sometimes well-intended words can cause pain, which brings to mind a story about my mother. She had a blood disorder that eventually converted to leukemia. Clear that nothing more could be done, she broke the news to friends. One replied, “I can’t believe it. You look so good!” My mother was annoyed by the remark, noting that it was insensitive. She said, “How am I supposed to look? Do people think I am making this up?”

This is the nature of illness. Sometimes people don’t look sick even when they are gravely ill. When people remark, “You look good,” they are trying to be kind. However, these comments are well-intended, but simultaneously invalidating. I recall late in my hepatitis C treatment, someone saying to me, “You don’t look sick.” My hair was thinning, my fingernails ghastly, and I had a nasty, visible rash. I was nauseous, depressed and irritable. It took every ounce of restraint not to say, “And you don’t look stupid or careless.”

We tell people they look good in order to encourage them, rather than to question their health. It is a way of expressing admiration and support when someone is going through turmoil. We hope that if we tell our sick friends that they look good, they will be lifted out of their misery.

Denial may be at play here. We don’t want to see our loved ones suffer, so we accentuate the positive.  In my mother’s case, you’d have to be legally blind to miss the fact that she was on oxygen, bruised, weighed less than Karen Carpenter, and was so anemic that her skin looked like chalk. Did I tell my mom that she looked horrible? Of course not, but neither did I tell her she looked good. I told her I loved her and stayed away from conversations about her appearance.

It would be simple if we could speak to others as we would want them to speak to us, but we are all so different. Let’s start with what not to do:

  • Don’t judge. Even if you think the person is exaggerating, remain compassionate.
  • Skip stories about your worse experience. You may think it helpful to tell someone who is struggling about how you scaled Mt. Everest without oxygen while you had the same disease, but it may make them feel inadequate and hopeless. Keep your experiences to yourself unless you think they will help.
  • Don’t tell them how to feel. “Get over it, you’ll be fine” is the last thing we want to hear when we are ill.
  • Don’t over-sympathize. Pity doesn’t help and it is demeaning.

Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Sometimes we communicate far more with sincere, attentive listening, than we do with words.
  • Offer support. You can give on-the-spot support, such as “I don’t want to pry, but if there is something going on and you want to talk about it, I’m happy to listen” or offer help, such as, “Is there anything I can do?” Don’t offer to help if you aren’t prepared to follow through with a “yes” or a firm, “I’m not able to do that, but I can do such-and-such.”
  • If you had similar experiences, and your intention is solely to show empathy, then it is fine to relate your experiences, as long as you aren’t trying to show one-upmanship.
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