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Supporting patients and their Families

By Wade Iwata
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Being an oncology social worker, the families I work with share the often frustrating remarks well intentioned friends and family say.  It can be astonishing what comes out when our friends and families are uncomfortable or do not know what to say when you or a loved one are facing a serious illness.  This week, Bruce Feiler wrote an article in the New York Times on June 12th, 2011, titled ‘You Look Great’ and Other Lies.1  In his article, Mr. Feiler lists a variety of things he feels friends and family should never say to someone who is sick as well as, some useful tips on what should be said to them.  Some of the ideas he has for what should not be said include: giving medical recommendations, telling the patient or caregiver everything will be okay, and using banal statements such as “my thoughts are with you” and “you look great”.  These statements might be well intentioned but they repeatedly lead to the patient taking care of the well wisher.  Mr. Feiler’s recommendations for what to say to flip the dynamic back to providing support for the patient include offering the patient the opportunity to discuss topics outside of the illness, staying for shorter amounts of time to allow the patient to rest, and excusing the patient from thanking you for your support.  His final recommendation, use pure and direct emotions to show how you feel.  Telling the patient you are sorry they are going through this, is a powerful and helpful tool to showing them you care. 

Having read through Bruce Feiler’s article, I am thankful for his frankness and ability to bring this topic to light.  As many of you are aware, there are many other comments or acts that make a patient or caregiver feel frustrated.  There are also many more ways to provide, positive and helpful support to patients and their families.  We would love to hear your comments, thoughts, and your own experiences with helpful and/or frustrating remarks your friends, family, or loved ones made.

1. Feiler, B. (2011, June 12) ‘You look great’ and other lies. New York Times, ST2

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