How do I support my friend whose spouse has cancer?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What do you say to a friend or relative that's going through terminal cancer with a spouse?

Expert Answer

Shelly Beach, MRE, is a seminary graduate; instructor at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan; author of seven books; and contributor to The NIV Stewardship Study Bible. She speaks nationally on faith, writing, and caregiving and is a host on the website Help for My Life in roundtable discussions on care issues. Beach's most recent release is Ambushed by Grace: Help and Hope on the Caregiving Journey.

When we hear that a loved one, friend, or their spouse has received a terminal diagnosis, we're often reluctant to talk to them out of concern that we might say the wrong thing or be unable to give comforting answers for their pain and approaching loss. It's difficult to know how to help a friend with cancer, terminal illness, or who is caring for a terminally ill spouse. But the most important response for someone facing terminal cancer is to hear our genuine compassion and concern"”to know that they are cared for and are not alone.

It's not necessary to offer solutions or explanations when we're looking for ways to help. Simple words of comfort and reassurance will communicate your support. For instance,

"I'm so sorry you have to go through this. I want to help."

"I'm not sure I can find the right words, but I want you to know I care."

"I love you."

"I'm praying for you, and I'm here for anything you may need."

"I'm available any time you want to talk."

"I want to support you through this. How can I help?"

"Ask, How are you and your spouse doing physically? Emotionally? Spiritually?"

There are also things you shouldn't say: Don't tell stories about other people's cancer experiences or offer suggestions about treatments. Don't offer superficial comments like,

"Well, we all die of something."

"God has a purpose and plan for all of us."

"Think positively."

"God never gives us more than we can handle."

Assure your friend that you respect their privacy. Be honest with them, and share your feelings from the heart. Practice the art of listening and be willing to absorb whatever your friend expresses without feeling compelled to offer solutions, easy answers, or suggestions. Sometimes the companionship of silence can be our greatest gift.