Make them feel seen. It’s an age-old, time tested way to bring comfort those who are suffering. When I was going through the cancer grinder, I directly experienced the healing power of feeling seen. And conversely, the distressing effect of not feeling seen. This post will unpack the meaning of these words and offer concrete examples of what to say and not say.
Let me start with a simple analogy. When babies experience pain or discomfort, they cry. When we pick them up and acknowledge their feelings, they calm down. Similarly, when I was going through the devastation of cancer, when people acknowledged my suffering, I felt seen. And when they did not, I felt unseen.
As human beings, we largely interact with other people through language, let’s thus explore how words can comfort, or discomfort, people living with devastating illnesses.
3 Things to Not Say to a Cancer Patient
When I told people about my cancer, the most common responses I received were the following:
- They jumped into fixing mode and gave me advice on how to beat cancer
- They jumped into coaching mode and gave me a positive pep talk
- They shared a story about a relative who had cancer and/or died.
Although these responses stemmed from a genuine desire to helpful, they made me feel worse. Why? Because I didn’t need to be fixed or coached; I simply needed to feel seen. To have my suffering be witnessed and acknowledged by another human being. To hear, “I am sorry you are going through this. Would you like to tell me more?” Or “Where does it hurt?” But strangely, these questions were rarely asked.
Instead, I received countless lectures on how to beat cancer from people who never had cancer. (Very seldom asking if I needed advice, or what I was already doing to beat cancer). I was given endless pep talks, urging me to be positive, be strong, have faith, look at the bright side, keep cancer out of my mind, etc. Strangely, instead of comforting me, these remarks dispirited me and made me feel unseen.
I listened to many stories about people’s relatives who had cancer. A large number of people believed that sharing these stories was a way to empathize and show me that they understood what I was going through. It didn’t feel like this to me. They often prefaced their stories with: “My so-and-so had cancer. I know all about cancer”. I still cringe when I hear these words from someone who never had cancer. First, there are more than a hundred types of cancer. Second, every cancer story is unique. Give cancer patients the gift of hearing their story. It will go a long way in making them feel seen (and heard).
Last spring, I attended a meditation retreat with an esteemed Buddhist monk. We had met before and developed a friendship. He knew about my cancer, and I was looking forward to sharing more in person. To my surprise, our first conversation veered into him telling me about a friend of his who had cancer! I listened respectfully but was disappointed inside. Later on, I reflected that sharing my disappointment with him would be a chance to untangle a challenge that puzzles many cancer patients. If one person had the skills to help me untangle this, it was him. Our second conversion went like this.
- Me: When I tell people about my cancer, they often shift the conversation to a relative of theirs who had cancer. I wish I could share my story instead of hearing about someone else who is not in the room.
- Him: Why didn’t you tell me? If you had told me, I would have immediately stopped and listened to you.
- Me: It’s hard for me to ask for permission to share. I can do it with other things. But with cancer, I find it hard.
- Him: I understand.
- Me: I never get a chance to share my story because people always rush to tell me about their relatives’ cancer stories. I want to wave my arms and say, “Hi, I have cancer too. I wish you could see me.” But I don’t stand up and wave. Instead, I just sink into disappointment.
- Him: I understand; it’s hard.
- Me: As cancer patients, we hear such stories all the time.
- Him: Really? Is it common for cancer patients?
- Me: Yes!
- Him: Wow! Thank you for opening my eyes! I was not aware of it.
His responses startled me. He responded with such humility and openness. A testimony to his far-reaching meditation practice. Even though it didn’t start out that way, I felt deeply seen and validated by our second exchange.
Acknowledge Their Suffering
Going through cancer and hearing about the experience of other cancer patients magnified for me how perplexing it is for those who’ve never had cancer to offer emotional support to cancer patients. A cancer patient recently commented on my blog how much he’d wanted his friends to see the pain in his eyes, but mostly they didn’t. Like many cancer patients, this patient had a deep need for his suffering to be witnessed and acknowledged, but he couldn’t get his need met.
This gap doesn’t stem from a lack of desire to be helpful. Most people want to help. But rather from not understanding the cancer experience. In my highly popular post Inside the Mind of a Cancer Patient I explained how the opacity of the cancer experience often results in misconceptions and hurt feelings. (You may want to read it if you haven’t already). It’s hard to comfort someone going through an alien illness. The best approach is humility, as the monk above beautifully demonstrated, and acknowledging the pain of cancer patients. When we pause and acknowledge the suffering of another, we bear witness to their experience. This act in itself is healing.
I hope this post was useful. I am sharing my experience with deep openness with the hope to help others. Help cancer patients, by giving voice to their unseen suffering. Help caregivers, by revealing the inner experience of cancer so they can be better empowered to comfort those they seek to help.
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