The following tips are an excerpt from Karita Aaltonen’s book I Survived: A Nordic Woman’s Guide to Healing from Cancer.
When you are sick, even small and well-intentioned things can be annoying. “If anyone is going to make it, it’ll be you.” No, I did not want anyone to outdo me in my positivity. I wanted to be the one setting the pace. I will determine how positively we can think about all of this, about my cancer. I am certainly not ready to hear how someone’s distant relative died of a brain tumor within a couple of months. “Call me if you need anything,” is a common one. Give me a break. As if I would call busy people in the morning, asking them to cook my family a casserole, and come over and bring it to us.
You do not need the right words. You can just hug the person, say “Hey, I’m right here for you,” and listen. Do not give them any advice. Only give advice if you are specifically asked to do so.
Do not, under any circumstances, tell horror stories of someone you knew who in a short few months died of the same disease that the person you are talking to has. No – we do not want to hear these stories.
Do not say, “Call me if you need anything.” The sick person knows how hectic and busy other people’s lives are. We will not call you during your work day. Instead, say: “Is it okay if I bring you some Indian food in the evening? Or make some macaroni casserole for your kids that you can freeze for later? Maybe take your dogs for a walk in the morning? Can I pick your kids up for a sleepover tomorrow? Hey, I’m having coffee in the city center now, would you like me to grab you a green smoothie and raw vegan cake before I leave?” In other words, you should give concrete suggestions. Maybe you know what your friend likes or might want. If you do not, go back to item number one: listen.
We do not want to cause you any stress or ask you for anything. We want to be able to manage on our own. But if you really want to help us – we accept it with great gratitude. We will also never forget it. We understand if you have been unable or afraid to call us. We understand it is easier to not call us than to call us and burst into tears. We understand you wanted to see us but did not. We understand. We are World Champions of Understanding.
Do not downplay the disease. In my case, I had a very aggressive and malignant tumor. Do not say “You’ll get through it.” You cannot know that for sure. Do not say things you are not sure are true.
We want to talk about everyday things, not just our illness. You do not have to fear or underestimate your problems under the pretense that your problems are so much smaller or that they are nothing compared to our terminal illness. Do not hesitate to tell us if you have a cold, your child has had a vicious cycle of ear infections, you are tired, or your marriage sucks. That is part of life, too. However, there is a clear difference between having something you genuinely want to talk about, and simply whining and moaning about everything, all the time. And when someone is actually very sick, they may not want to hear that you are having a bad hair day. Oh really? I lost all my hair in chemo.
The best thing to do is for you to come over. We can make some tea and have a talk. Nothing special, no pressure. We can talk about whatever comes up.
I hope that is helpful. Thank you for being there for your sick friend or loved one.
By Karita Aaltonen