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.