How to Comfort a Friend

When a life-threatening diagnosis becomes a part of a loved one's life we don't always know what to do or say first. Here are some pointers.

| August 2009

When a friend receives a serious diagnosis, it’s the rare individual who knows instinctively how to respond.

Rule No. 1: Assume nothing.
We think we might know how someone feels because we know other sick people, but everybody’s experience is different.

Rule No. 2: Do more listening than talking.
False reassurance is not helpful: “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine” won’t help if your friend has, for instance, pancreatic or lung cancer. Take your cues from the other person. Is he saying “I know I’m gonna beat it” or “I’m really scared I’m going to die”?

Rule No. 3: “I don’t know what to say” is okay.
Most people do not know what to say. Admit up front “I don’t know what will be of help to you. Do you need someone to pick up the kids, to make lasagna, to take you for a manicure?” You have to ask.

Rule No. 4: But don’t push.
You can ask, “How are you feeling?” If you hear “I’m great!” that means “I don’t want to talk.” You can suggest or recommend, then you just have to back off.

Sara Goldberger, a cancer survivor, an oncology social worker, and director of program support for Gilda’s Club Worldwide (gildasclub.org; 888-GILDA-4-U)