What Not to Say About My Sick Family Member

In an eerie coincidence, the same week my book was published – a family saga with the word “death” right in its title — a close family member was diagnosed with a serious illness.  It’s a liver disease that’s been seen in our family before with fatal results.  Though not hopeless, it is at best an extremely difficult crisis.  It is the boogeyman.

We’re not the kind of family to hit the social media circuit with alarming, heart-wrenching announcements.  We suffer best in intimate surroundings.  But as time goes on and the disease muscles its way into everyday life, it becomes necessary to tell people outside our inner circle why things are changing.  Some of the people who should respond with the simple sympathy and support we need choose another route.  They respond with unwanted, quack-tastic theories and advice about what went wrong.

Questionable health advice is part of social life in the Google age.  When it’s aimed at me – a healthy person just entering mid-life – I can grin and listen to it.  If an idea is important to my friends, I can make it important enough to me to bear a thorough, good-humoured airing of it.  That’s empathy.  But when Google-lore is leveled at my loved one’s acute health crisis, it becomes a different matter entirely.  Suddenly, the onus is no longer on me not to be callous about my friends’ attachments to their pet beliefs.  It’s now on them not to be callous of my grief and anxiety.  That’s empathy.

I understand that no one I know has any malicious intent toward sick people or their loved ones.  At the root of unsolicited advice about magic grease and mega-minerals and super-berries is an earnest desire to be helpful – to give me the information I need to escape the suction of the awful yellow-green vortex swirling in the depths of my gene pool.

And I do have friends and relatives – people with decades of education and experience in both conventional and alternative medical fields – whom I shamelessly pester for unpaid, informal advice on health matters.  The problem isn’t that I’m too proud to seek out or listen to advice.

The problem is the subtext people like me, who are dealing with sensitive situations, can read into well-meant advice.

Let me explain what it sounds like when I’m told by anyone other than an attending health care worker how to save my loved one and myself.  It could be any kind of advice, like do not, under any circumstances, drink sweet, fizzy drinks.  (Yes, someone once told me pop is the worst thing anyone can drink.  Actually, I’d wager mercury is the worst thing anyone can drink – or molten lava, or tailing pond-water, or bleach, or a broken-glass smoothie).  The advice could be warnings never to eat gluten or dairy or red meat or unicorn hoofs.  It could be voicing suspicions about all those sinister vaccines.  It could be nothing more than pushy chatter about positive thinking.

Right now, this kind of advice all sounds harsh and denunciatory.  No matter what anyone intends when they say it, none of this feels like good will to me.  Instead, it’s like being told my loved one deserves to be sick because he’s not as smart as the people on Google and he fricked up his body, like an idiot.

And that’s not true.

Even if it was true, what good would it do to lavish scorn on someone’s choices now that he’s already sick?

So save it.  When someone cracks the door open and makes the darkness of their tragedy visible, don’t shoulder through the gap and start tripping around wreaking havoc in the gloom.  Accept what they’ve shared and tell them, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry to hear that.”  Sit and listen.  If you can, find out where that sick loved one is and go shovel the snow off his sidewalks. Or tell that struggling friend how it was when you were living in the same kind of shadow.  Say a prayer.  Give a hug.  Shut your face.