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What NOT to Say When You Learn Someone Has a Serious Illness

I was captain of the blood donor team.

It was for an annual corporate challenge—a city wide event—and I sucked people in my company into getting blood sucked out of them. The event ran for three months and included all sorts of physically gruelling events, including tug-o-war (I was anchor man) and a 10K (I wasn’t a runner yet, so I passed on that). I did okay in the chicken wing eating contest.

I stepped up as captain during the run of the event and switched from donating whole blood every 56 days to plasma every two weeks to pump up our numbers. Just FYI, donating plasma is more of an ordeal, and I told people if I could do that, they could handle one or two whole blood donations.

We came in second in the city. Go us.

Alas, I’ve been lazy about blood donations the last several years. When I was in a corporate environment there was often mobile clinics that came by, and I was happy to lie down for the needle and the cookie afterwards. Since I’ve been working at home fulltime, it’s harder to get my ass out there. I’ve become selfish about my time.

But that ends now.

My friend Kathleen Smith has been through some trying times. I interviewed her a while ago for a piece titled “The Peril of Being an Opinionated Woman on the Internet” (Read it! It opens in a new window.) Her daughter has been going through some serious health challenges, and she’s shared her story on Facebook. The diagnosis finally came in: ulcerative colitis, which is an inflammation of the inner lining of the colon.

In her daughter’s case, it is moderately severe and requires years of IV treatments, and medication for the rest of her life.

Guess what happened when she announced this on social media. I’ll answer that by sharing the post that followed, where Kathleen wrote:

“I swear to God the next person who recommends pot, garlic, gluten free, or Essence of Bear Testicles for my kid is gonna get throat punched. We are working with the best doctors in the COUNTRY. Rest of y’all Google Med School types just STFU.”

Alas, people do not STFU. It’s why I wrote a piece last year titled “Shut the Fuck Up About Your Bullshit Cancer Cure.”

I believe many are possessed with this desire to offer some type of “solution,” no matter how outlandish, when faced with such tragedies. Perhaps they fear it’s hitting too close to home, and they worry such an ailment could strike them or their family, and they hate not having control over such a situation and latch onto some “miracle cure” that they proffer as way to control that which cannot be controlled.

Modern medicine is not perfect, but it’s what we got. Alternative “medicine” is largely bullshit and usually does the square root of fuck all except offer false hopes while draining wallets.

Know this: When someone tells you that they or someone they love is sick, they do NOT need to hear about your bullshit “cure.” They don’t want to. So, like Kathleen said, please STFU about that stuff.

And yet, there are things you can and should say.

Things like, “I’m sorry you’re going through this” and “What can I do to help?”

I’ll note that some people don’t want to hear the word “sorry;” it depends on the person. But people usually appreciate the offer of help, especially if, rather than put the onus on them to come up with idea, suggest a way in which you can help, such as offering to do grocery shopping, looking after pets or kids, taking them to appointments, or just spending time with them.

In the case of Kathleen’s first post, she endeavored to preempt the bullshit cure suggestions by asking people to donate: blood, time, or money.

Those things are all more challenging than making a comment that “I’ve heard great things about CBD oil for treating this.” When you make that comment, it may make you feel better because you believe that you’re helping, but you are not. You’re making things worse. Kathleen’s child, as she mentioned, is getting the best real medical help she can. If you want to actually help someone in such a situation, you ask what it is you can do.

Kathleen wants me to donate blood, so I’m going to donate blood. And I’m not going to offer any stupid-ass uneducated medical suggestions, because that’s what her doctors are for.

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James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first bookwas published by Random House Canada in 2014. His next book, which is about life-changing moments, will be published in January 2019.  

 

 

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