What The F#@$ Am I Supposed To Say?

Beats me, and I’ve been there more times than I care to think about. People I’d known for over twenty years suddenly developed terrible, virulent cancers and I was struck speechless. Of course I wanted to tell them I wished it hadn’t happened to them, that I wanted to offer support in any and every way possible, that I cared, that what happened to them mattered to me. So where was the perfect sentence? I’m a frickin’ writer, for chrissakes––what was wrong with me that I couldn’t come up with something?

There are no articles on finding the right thing to say. However, there are plenty of articles on what not to say. There’s one that even has a diagram of concentric circles to show which way the talk should flow. The affected person is at the bull’s-eye; arrows indicate comfort should flow inward, while anything involving complaints, unhappiness, or other less-than-comforting talk should go the other way. You’re supposed to figure out which circle you’re in with respect to the people around you, and talk accordingly.

As the person located at the bull’s-eye, if I may be so bold: this is a great exercise in shutting people up.

What the FUCK do you say to a friend burdened with telling you, I’m very ill and I might not have long to live? You could say this news upsets you, makes you sad, you feel awful––but jeez, how stupid is that? Maybe they’ll reply with something like Oh, I’m so sorry, this is the world’s smallest violin playing a sad song for ruining your day or You poor thing, is there anything I can do?

Nobody wants to be an asshole to a seriously ill friend. Stumped for something to say, many people end up saying nothing for a long time and then find themselves making awkward apologies for saying nothing for a long time.

Life ain’t easy and this shit makes it even harder.

I’ve thought a lot about this because, as I said, I’ve been the friend wondering what the hell to say. Iain Banks was a friend for over twenty years; when his wife Adele put up a page for people to send him good wishes after he was diagnosed with cancer, I sat at the computer for two hours before I came up with something.

I’d known Graham Joyce almost as long; the last time I saw him, I found myself staring dumbly into his face as he told me about the aggressive nature of his cancer.

Graham wasn’t waiting for me to say the perfect thing about that. There was no perfect thing to say about that; there still isn’t, and there never will be. Graham was just talking to me because we were friends, we were at a publisher’s party, and we always caught up with each other at parties. I’m not sure what I said, finally, but the conversation went on. So did Graham, for a while, though not nearly long enough.

In fact, the last time I saw Iain Banks was at a party he threw in London. He invited all his friends because he wanted to make sure he had a chance to see them before he became too ill, or worse. It was a deliberate act of defiance, not just of cancer but of the what-the-fuck-do-I-say syndrome. Iain made his way around the room and talked to every single person there, putting everyone at ease. He wasn’t Terminally-Ill Iain, he was the Iain we always knew, talking, laughing, joking, having a ball.

I was already ill myself at the time, though I didn’t know it. When I said good night to Iain, I told him that he was still the handsomest man in Scotland (if you argue about that with me, I’ll punch you). Iain thanked me for my flattery and promised, “I’ll see you again, Pat.” He was so strong at the time, I thought there was a chance and I was shocked and saddened when he passed away not long after. (I do, however, believe he’ll keep that promise; it just won’t be here.)

I’m pretty sure it was watching Iain at his party that put this in the back of my mind. It was a genuinely happy occasion, because that was Iain––he was a happy occasion on two legs, and any party he was at became a super-party thanks to his good nature (trust me, I’m experienced).

Iain had not invited people to come and say the exact perfect thing to him. He just wanted to be with them. He knew we would want to see him and he made it easy for us to do that. I know, the concentric-circle diagram says comfort flows inward; you figure out what circle you’re in and you comfort people closer in than you are, but you must not expect people closer in to comfort you. But when Iain Banks was at the centre of the bull’s-eye, he flipped it and put all his friends there instead, and did something nice for them.

As the person in the bull’s-eye, I want to comfort my loved ones.

I want to tell my loved ones, particularly those who are still lost for words and can’t find their voices yet, that I know you don’t know what to say and that’s all right, it doesn’t matter.

My oncologist is the only person who could ever say the perfect thing to me––viz., Ms. Cadigan, you’re totally cured and tests show you’ll live to be 150, it’s a miracle! Everybody else is off the hook.

You don’t have to say anything but what you usually say to me. It is not one moment that matters but the totality of a relationship. If we were friends before this happened, we’re still friends now. You’re not obliged to try to find something perfect to say. The fact of your friendship is comfort enough, comfort that’s been there all along.

Win-win!

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22 thoughts on “What The F#@$ Am I Supposed To Say?

  1. I might say “I’m sorry to hear you are ill. I hope you get well. I love you. I pray for you”. That’s what I might say. It’s called compassion.

  2. Lovely comments. We’re here for you!

    My father had a very old friend from work who was terminally ill and threw his own wake early. He was well enough to go and enjoy it and he saw almost everyone he’d worked with for years and his friends. He died about a week later.

  3. What can one say? I’ve had similar conversations with my mother, when she was going through chemo. All I said was: “We’ve got your back. You’re not alone in this. You’ve got friends and family with you. You’ve got medical professionals who’ve dedicated their life to kicking the emperor of maladies in the balls behind you. Take the life you have and run like you stole it.”

    OK, I may have omitted the testicular damage reference – it’s my mom, after all – but the spirit is there.

    • My mother didn’t go through chemo but when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her maternal instincts kicked in and set up a conflict for her. She had to depend on me to talk with the doctors because she couldn’t see or hear well enough. At the same time, she felt bad because she felt she should have been taking care of me.

  4. I’ll say the same thing I’d say anyway: hope to see you at WisCon, and keep being the amazing writer you are. (Oh, and: Fuck Cancer!!!!)

  5. I’m just glad that, as a talker, you’re still talking. Showing people that cancer doesn’t turn you into a different person is important — even as facing what you’re facing IS changing you. You’re just letting yourself change toward the best.

    My dad, when diagnosed with ALS, made the opposite choice, gave into anger. I’m not angry at him, but I mourn that I lost the crazy, silly part of him sooner than I needed to.

    So I’m glad we still have Pat. And that you’re so freaking honest. Comfort given. Comfort accepted.

  6. Besides, if I found the perfect thing to say, what could I say after that? Wouldn’t want to have to shut up or be anti-climatic!

    • Well, there is that. After you do or say the perfect thing, there’s nowhere to go. Human beings––flawed, and loving it.

  7. I feel ashamed to admit I’ve been one of the ones trying to think of the right things to say (and, well, I’ll admit there was a hefty amount of denial going on there as well along the lines of “Oh fuck no, not Pat as well!” after having far too many friends have to fight their own battles with cancer and, well, fuck cancer) – which is frustrating because normally I think I’m fairly good at the whole “finding words” business. There’s also chronic guilt that after knowing each other for nearly 8 years online we *still* haven’t met in person and I’m angry with myself that I haven’t made more of an effort. But the longer you leave it without saying anything, the harder it gets to actually speak. So, here I am apologising for being a crap friend (and no, not looking for reassurance or anything because hey, we’re both adults, and this is just me owning up to a fact here). But I can and will do better. I can’t say I’ll always say the right thing but being here is better than not. 😉

    (And damn it, when your current course of chemo is done we ARE going to have that coffee at long last!)

    • From about 2000 until 2012, it was difficult for me to have any sort of social life because caring for my mother was consuming most of my waking hours. So it’s not really down to a lack of effort on your part––I hardly saw *anyone* in person and seldom for very long. After dealing with my mother, I didn’t have much energy for being social.

      We are definitely getting together when I’m clear of chemo.

      And you don’t have to feel ashamed. You’re a good person. I won’t stand for cancer making you feel like you aren’t.

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