Unsolicited Advice: Please Don't Say These Things to Your Terminally Ill Friends

Image by marcisim from Pixabay

Image by marcisim from Pixabay

Welcome to Unsolicited Advice, the weekly column in which I dispense advice no one asked for to people who don’t even know who I am.

A lot of times, I keep it light but relevant, but this week a dear friend reached out to me. She wanted to submit a little unsolicited advice and wondered if I might be interested in sharing it. My friend is currently fighting cancer for the 3rd time in her life. It’s terminal…very serious stuff. Yet she is continuing to move forward with her life, determined to live while living. That means she’s still out and about, still working, still socializing, still interacting with people every day…still hearing stupid things come out of the mouths of well-meaning people. So let me share this sage advice from my foxy friend about what to say – and more importantly what not to say – to terminally ill people when you see them.

1. Don’t ask me how I’m doing. If I’m doing good–or if I’ve had some good news lately I’ll tell you. But usually, I’m just getting worse slowly. So, unless you’re my doctor or nurse, don’t say, “You look so good! You’re doing better right?” This forces me to either lie, “Yes. I’m getting better,” or to depress both of us by saying, “No. My tumor marker numbers just keep getting worse and worse.” What you can say is something like, “It is so good to see you! I’ve been thinking about you.”

2. Make a statement. Don’t ask me a question (like “how are you doing?”) unless it isn’t health-related. Something like, “I was thinking about the time we went to lunch with Cheryl and Gretchen. That was so fun. Do you remember that?” I have informed my friends at church and sometimes they say, “How are you feeling–wait. No. It’s good to see you.” This makes me happy because I can tell they listened to me and are trying to make me as comfortable as possible.

3. Don’t act surprised that I’m still happy and here. Seriously, a few months back a woman leaned over the pew at church and said, “You’re still here? Wow! I can’t believe it!” Now, I’m sure she meant this as a positive statement, but I felt like answering, “Yup. Sorry I haven’t died yet.”

4. Don’t tell me horror stories that you’ve heard. “You are looking so good. I have an aunt who had the same cancer you do and was taking the same medication. She was healthy for a long time but one morning she woke up and her arms had fallen off.” Any woman who has gone through a pregnancy has had to deal with people like this. When I was pregnant many people would grab me and tell me the most gruesome labor stories. “My niece’s hairdresser was in hard labor for two months! etc. etc.”

5. Don’t ask me what God is punishing me for. A dear friend asked me what I thought I’d done that God would allow me to go through this. What? Have you never read the account in the Gospel of John 9:2-3,

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

6. Just talk to me like a normal person. I do understand that people don’t know what to say in some situations and so they say something stupid or hurtful. But honestly? I’d rather people said nothing about my health and just talked to me normally, like they did before I was diagnosed. I am not a person who takes offense easily. But it gets wearing to explain over and over again that no – I am not in remission. And actually, my doctor is not even trying to get me into remission any longer. He is just trying to keep me comfortable for as long as I stick around. And I’m okay with whatever happens. Besides, I could easily live another 15 years. And I may slip in the bathroom, crack my head on the tub and die tomorrow.


I want to thank my friend for reaching out with this completely unsolicited advice. I know I’ve learned some very valuable lessons from her, and I will absolutely put more thought into how I sound to the struggling people to whom I’m trying to offer comfort and support. Sometimes we don’t know what to do in our desperation. As an outside observer, it is heart-wrenching to watch the people you love go through such pain and fear. It can make you awkward. You want your friend to know you’re not ignoring their plight, but you also just don’t know what to say about it all. What I’m taking away from my friend’s advice is that it is actually fine to just say nothing sometimes…to just say what you would say to any other friend on any other normal day.

“It’s good to see you!”

“How’s that 4000 piece jigsaw puzzle coming along?”

“Did you watch the Dancing With the Stars last night?”

Grief, pain, and suffering are all part of the human experience. Not a one of us will escape these mortal coils without our share. Sometimes we want to treat those experiences as though they are rare, special. Unfortunately, they are not, but it isn’t until you go through those things that you realize you really don’t want to be special and rare anymore…you just want to be like everyone else. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone suffering is the gift of normalcy.

Also, I think my friend should take out all the tubs in her home and replace them with safety showers.