Things to Say to Someone Whose Loved One Died of Cancer

Community // May 3, 2018

When speaking to someone dealing with the loss of a loved one due to cancer, it can be impossible to find the perfect thing to say. While it might be hard to grasp the right words, there are ways to appropriately communicate your support and sympathy. Death caused by terminal illness can entail a long journey for everyone involved, including loved ones and caregivers, which is important to keep in mind when expressing your thoughts and concerns to avoid saying the wrong thing.

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When and How to Address Loss

It’s important to understand that death from cancer can often come quickly and unexpectedly, depending on prognosis. While some cancers have a long life expectancy, others like mesothelioma do not, where many patients may only survive about one year after diagnosis. Therefore, early stages of grieving can be extremely difficult for loved ones. Offering condolences during this time will ensure support when it’s needed the most.

Consider your relationship with the individual, and decide whether to reach out as soon as you hear the news or if it would be more appropriate to pass along your condolences the next time you see him or her. Every situation and relationship is different, so there isn’t going to be one answer for when to voice your sympathy.

Never address someone’s loss with shock or surprise. Cancer can take lives very unexpectedly, and it may not be something that you or the individual could have predicted. Keep your conversation short and respectful, don’t push for further information or direct questions about the illness towards the individual, and make their responses and emotions a priority.

What to Say and What to Avoid

Addressing someone who is suffering can be extremely difficult, as you have no way of understanding exactly what he or she is going through. The best thing to do is offer respect, support and thoughtful words, whether someone is grieving from a loss to cancer or just learned of a loved one’s diagnosis. If you don’t know what to say, that’s okay too. It’s better to address your loss for words than to stay silent.

Things to Consider Saying

  • “I’m incredibly sorry for your loss.”
  • “If there’s anything that I can do, please let me know.”
  • “I’m here if you need to talk.”
  • “You and your family members are in my thoughts.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, just know that I’m thinking of you.”

Depending on the nature of your relationship, you may be able to offer your friend something more. Would bringing over a meal be helpful? Would it be helpful to offer companionship, so that he or she is not alone? Could flowers and a note offer an additional gesture of kindness? Even a simple check-in phone call could be greatly appreciated.

When struggling to find the right words to offer, there are phrases and terminology that should be avoided. People experiencing grief and sorrow are experiencing an array of difficult emotions, making them more sensitive than usual. This is a completely natural response and should be taken into account when offering emotional support.

Things to Avoid Saying

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “I know it hurts now, but it will pass.”
  • “I experienced the same exact feelings.”
  • “I’ve been in the same situation.”
  • “They’re in a better place.”
  • “This is when you need to be strong.”

Understand that how you experience or perceive grief, even in a similar situation, may be different than what the grieving person is actually going through, so be considerate of how your thoughts may be received.

Key Takeaways for Addressing Loss

Death is one of the worst things someone can experience, so it’s important to approach the loss of a loved one with nothing but compassionate care and respect.

  • Everyone addresses loss differently. While some people prefer to head back to work right away, stay busy and keep distracted, others need space and time alone. The grieving person might avoid discussing his or her loss, or they might be inclined to share stories and favorite memories. Respect that how another individual deals with loss is his or her own choice, and one that should be respected.
  • Expected or unexpected, it’s never easy. Life expectancy varies based on the type of cancer, when he or she is diagnosed, the cancer patient’s health and well-being, and a variety of other factors. Even if you hear that a close friend’s loved one has been dealing with cancer for a while, it’s still going to be an extremely difficult time for him or her.
  • Grief isn’t something that can be fixed. Loss isn’t something that can be fixed, changed or taken away. Don’t try to “lighten the mood,” minimize feelings or treat the situation as “not a big deal.” Focus solely on offering as much support as you can, within the individual’s boundaries and wishes.
  • Support is huge. You might not be able to change how someone feels, but your support can be comforting and uplifting. With not just your thoughtfulness, but that of others and community support groups, those grieving can find guidance through a difficult time.