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Essay: Responses to Suffering

When my young daughter was diagnosed with cancer, we were all shocked and terrified.  Then, gradually, we found the strength to go forward—and it was a long journey, a hard journey.  Strangely enough, what sometimes made it harder was responses from friends and family and even from health care workers. 

When people don’t know what to say, they often say the wrong things—things that hurt instead of help.  People brought me their fear and confusion—but I didn’t need theirs; I had my own.  A colleague said, “I’ve been thinking about your daughter because my husband died of that.” 

A friend said, “I heard about Sara and I’m horrified.” 

“Mike,” I said, “that doesn’t help.  Tell me you’re hopeful.”

A physical therapist stood in front of Sara and spoke of her “deficits.”  When he left the room, she said, “Deficits!” and burst into tears.

I have learned that when people are suffering they don’t need advice or testimonials or gloom or doom.  They need positive messages of recovery and encouragement.  For someone to say, “You will get through this.” 

One friend wrote, “I have been trying to think of words (a poem, a quote) that might in some way soften the cruelty.  I have not been successful.”  Then, he added, “For what it is worth, I have faith that Sara is going to be okay.”

It was worth everything.