Dealing with bad news

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There was an article in the WSJ this morning about supporting loved ones when they find out they have cancer. I immediately had opinions on the article because I remember my own experience very clearly with my mom.  I remember cleaning out my college apartment when she called me to give me the news, and I think my immediate reaction was somewhat selfish.  I reacted in a way I thought was right for her, I put on the “you can do this, you can fight this,” hat.  I was so absorbed in reassuring myself that I was completely unaware of what my mom needed at that moment.  Now I certainly won’t beat myself up for that because it was a really difficult thing to go through, but I think the article brings awareness to an important issue: how to offer support in a way that works for the person with the difficult news, not in a way that works just for you.

From the WSJ article:

“Loved ones don’t know what to do, and they don’t want to make a terrible error,” says Marisa Weiss, an oncologist and founder of Breastcancer.org, a nonprofit organization. “This fear keeps people from doing anything.”

While that’s the worst mistake you can make, experts say, there are a number of other slip-ups. Well-meaning friends and family members often ask inappropriate questions, such as the patient’s prognosis. They offer theories on why their loved one got sick, give unsolicited advice or insist that “everything is going to be just fine.”

That was certainly the case for my mom.  She chose to deal with cancer in a manner that shocked and maybe even frustrated a lot of people: She didn’t want to talk about it.  She wanted to have life just go on, she wanted to more or less ignore its presence as much as possible.  And she wanted everyone around her to do the same.  She didn’t want to be a “sick person,” she just wanted to be her usual self.  She didn’t want to go to support groups, she didn’t want to have people call her out of the blue to offer words of encouragement, she just wanted to feel normal.  This approach included not fully knowing the details of her illness.  She chose instead for the doctors to treat her as they saw fit, but to keep her in the dark.  She not only wanted to feel normal, she wanted to maintain a very positive attitude.  This really drove people crazy.  Actually at times it even drove me crazy.  “How can you not know what you’re up against,” some people would say.  But that wasn’t their question to ask.  It was my mom’s.

From my experience, the best advice:

In general, experts say, you should take your lead from the person who is sick. If she wants to talk about her illness, then listen. Don’t be afraid of emotions. “Being there, listening and being supportive is a powerful role,” Dr. Weiss says. “If the person feels comfortable crying in front of you, be honored, because you fulfilled a really important need.”

I broke that bit of advice many times.  I once had a bunch of my mom’s friends send her letters of support. She was not happy about that to say the least.  I missed what was most important to her in her fight…the feeling of normal.  I struggled…how could she not want words of encouragement from so many that love her? Because normal life provided her the encouragement she wanted.  Extra attention from others made her feel sick, more vulnerable.  I didn’t understand then.  I do now.

In retrospect I hold a tremendous amount of respect for my mom’s approach.  It had to be SO hard to not know the details (especially for such an inquisitive person).  The unknown is a scary thing, especially when it relates to your health.  But there’s even more genius in her approach.  Not just because it allowed her to stay positive, and not just because it empowered her mind to think she was healthier than she actually was, but because it was ultimately HER way of dealing with it.  Not mine.  Not Tom’s.  Not her friends.  Hers.

Dealing with bad news is hard enough, offer support to someone as they need it, not how you think you would.

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3 responses to “Dealing with bad news”

  1. Jerry says :

    Be gentle on yourself, buddy. I'm sure she understands. I'm reminded of something Parker Palmer describes in his book “Let Your Life Speak.” He talks about being depressed and the kind of support one needs then. The “it'll all be better” chatter isn't particularly helpful. But one friend of his helped enormously. For weeks this friend would stop by each afternoon and just sit in a chair next to Palmer, saying nothing. Support meant simply being present.

  2. maggieungers says :

    Dan,I haven't talked to you in a long time, but I wanted to say hello. This last blog of yours touched on a lot of things that I have had to deal with lately. My childhood friend and close friend of the family, Will Sherman, died in a car accident about a month ago. He was driving his lotus on Delta Ave. in Mt. Lookout. I am sure you might have heard about it through the St. X grapevine, but it was such a tragedy for his family. Unfortunately, we are trying to help his parents through this tough time. Will was there only son. I found that in this situation, and in Kate's situation with her mom, and in my situation with my mom, you can never underestimate the power of support and love- even if they seem they don't want it or need it. That is just a front they put up. Deep down, I can honestly say that your mom loved all the gestures you gave her. She just wanted to appear strong for herself and her family. She wanted a normal life, but everyday in her heart she was reminded that she was fighting a serious disease. I know inside all those letters did hit a cord with her, probably so much that she appeared frustrated and upset on the outside, but on the inside that love made her heart burn stronger. You were the perfect person to have in her life during that struggle because you soften every situation. You bring a happiness and positive attitude to any situation. So what I am trying to say here, is don't stop doing what you do so well. You can never show too much love towards someone, only too little. The “only too little part” is the most damaging. I think you should still respect the way your mom handled the situation, but realize there is never a perfect answer in times like that. If you do everything from the heart though, it is usually the best in the end. Hope all is well. Keep in touch.-Mags

  3. maggieungers says :

    Dan,I haven't talked to you in a long time, but I wanted to say hello. This last blog of yours touched on a lot of things that I have had to deal with lately. My childhood friend and close friend of the family, Will Sherman, died in a car accident about a month ago. He was driving his lotus on Delta Ave. in Mt. Lookout. I am sure you might have heard about it through the St. X grapevine, but it was such a tragedy for his family. Unfortunately, we are trying to help his parents through this tough time. Will was there only son. I found that in this situation, and in Kate's situation with her mom, and in my situation with my mom, you can never underestimate the power of support and love- even if they seem they don't want it or need it. That is just a front they put up. Deep down, I can honestly say that your mom loved all the gestures you gave her. She just wanted to appear strong for herself and her family. She wanted a normal life, but everyday in her heart she was reminded that she was fighting a serious disease. I know inside all those letters did hit a cord with her, probably so much that she appeared frustrated and upset on the outside, but on the inside that love made her heart burn stronger. You were the perfect person to have in her life during that struggle because you soften every situation. You bring a happiness and positive attitude to any situation. So what I am trying to say here, is don't stop doing what you do so well. You can never show too much love towards someone, only too little. The “only too little part” is the most damaging. I think you should still respect the way your mom handled the situation, but realize there is never a perfect answer in times like that. If you do everything from the heart though, it is usually the best in the end. Hope all is well. Keep in touch.-Mags

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