Geeks Vs Loneliness: talking to someone with a serious illness

Just a few words on chatting to someone who is very ill...

Welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our weekly spot where we chat about things that may be affecting you, or people around you. No miracle cures are ever offered here, sadly, but we do hope to have advice, tips and discussions that may be of help to someone out there.

This week isn’t the easiest of subjects: we’re talking about how to talk to, interact with and respect people who are suffering from serious illness. This piece is written by Caroline Hardy, who was diagnosed with mouth cancer in the early 2000s. As Caroline says, “please do not take offence – it is meant as constructive advice”. And whilst obviously different people deal with things in different ways, here are the tips that Caroline has passed on.

• Do not avoid us. We already feel like lepers, like we are somehow dirty, that people talk about you behind your backs. If you do not know what to say, say just that, or just say you are sorry.

• Ask how we are, but don`t expect a glib answer back, like “fine thank you”. The best you should expect is “thanks for asking, I am having a good day” or “thanks, but it is not great today”. But do ask, it means a lot.

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• It is surprising how many folk just launch right into their own health problems and then say something crass like “but of course it is nothing compared to your troubles”- as if you need reminding. It is good to hear people talk about their aching joints from running etc,…but it should be reciprocal.

• Many cancer patients are called brave and courageous and I think the majority would agree that they hate this description of them. I usually say nothing when people say this to me but it makes me angry, as I am just doing what I can to stay alive, there is no choice in the matter. Yes, it is very hard to bear at times, but you just have to get on with it and do the best you can. I want to survive. I am not Scott of the Antarctic, prepared to sacrifice my life in the hope that others might survive. That is courage.

• “You must stay optimistic” is a kind of blame culture. I know people mean well by it, meaning if your morale is good ,your illness is often easier to tackle. But the patient hears “so it is my fault if I die from this cancer, because I let it get me down and brought it on myself”. You try being positive all the time, when you are feeling wretched, and death is on your mind a lot of the time and you can’t chase the thoughts away as they seem so close.

• Another bug bear is people seem to think they can ask you personal questions they would not dream of asking others. Like “do I believe in God?” If I do, I ain’t right impressed with him now, and if I don’t, then I am not suddenly going to start in the hope that he will cure me because I am a believer or that it will give me solace. Nothing will give me solace from losing my children and husband.

What you can do to help is be positive and encouraging yourselves. You do not need to say anything (especially not “it is going to be alright”), but put your arm around the person, show some warmth, be normal. Smile and talk about your world – we are still part of it, even if we can`t participate as fully as we would like.

Have a good day.

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Caroline Hardy died from her mouth cancer on May 16th 2010. Her family – her son, daughter and husband – decided to keep her outstanding blog live, where you can read her thoughts in full. The above article is an extract from her blog, a blog that continues to help people years after she wrote it.

Den Of Geek has donated the fee for this article to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, that you can find here:

Stay safe, everybody, and warm hugs to you all. And Jerina, if you’re reading: you’re ace.