4 Things Not to Say to Suffering People

Two days after my cancer surgery in 1990 at the age of 36, a friend came into my hospital room  with a smile on her face as she announced: “God is going to teach you great things through this trial!”

I wanted to take the IV out of my arm, stab it in hers, and tell her to get in the bed and learn great things from God!

Instead, I smiled weakly and pushed the morphine pump button.

During my more than three decades of cancer support ministry I’ve known literally thousands of suffering people. Here are four things I’ve learned not to say:

1. You should…
However we might be tempted to finish that sentence, we need to stopSuffering people don’t need our advice unless they ask for it.  Suffering is overwhelming and becomes even more so when well-meaning people offer recommendations they believe will help. Most of us are “fixers” and can jump into that role as soon as we hear a need.

Chris Lawrence

Author and longtime stage 4 cancer survivor Chris Lawrence offers this insight: “There is something healing about another person affirming our situation–not just trying to ‘fix it,’ but instead being with us in it.”

Let’s affirm that we hear someone’s hurt. Offer a simple (non-preaching!) prayer. Give assurance of our love–and God’s–no matter what.

2. Something good/better will come from this.
Yes, God can turn mourning into dancing and trade ashes for beauty, but whatever good comes may pale in comparison to the losses and may not even happen in this lifetime.

My friend Marge whose immediate family–husband and two children–were killed by a drunk driver made this observation about suffering: “Grief has given me a perspective on life’s priorities, an appreciation of the significance of the moment, a delight in the distraction of the trivial and a fearlessness of death. But I would gladly give up all these insights to…have my family back.”

It’s not our job to make sense of someone else’s suffering. God may reveal that to them, but as He told Job, He doesn’t owe us an explanation.

3. You shouldn’t feel that way.
Saying this to a suffering person minimizes their pain and is like hitting them when they’re already down.

Remember Job’s friends? Before they started telling him what not to feel, they were great comforters.

When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words. Job 2:11-13

Let us, too, sit in silence in those moments when a suffering loved one needs a safe place to vent.

4. Everything happens for a reason.
If this is a favorite phrase and you love to say it to yourself, please, continue! But others may not find the sentiment comforting because the word “reason” by definition means there is an explanation, a justification or rational grounds for what’s occurring. The implication is there’s a hidden “good” reason something happened.

What’s the good reason for suicide? War? Murder? Molestation?

Instead of offering platitudes, let’s offer our presence. NY Times bestselling author Rick Warren shares this personal recollection:

Our small group came over after (our son) Matthew died. They said, ‘We’re spending the night at your house. We’re not going to leave you here alone. We’re going to be with you.’They didn’t try to give us any words of wisdom. They just gave us the ministry of presence. They slept on our couches and on the floor. I’ll never forget how it held us up.”

My friend was right–I have learned great things from God through my cancer journey.

I just wish she hadn’t told me while my suffering was still too great for words.

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4 comments

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    • Barb on February 7, 2024 at 10:08 AM
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    Thanks Lynn. Your words of wisdom always lift me up. I thank God for your spirtual blessings you share.

      • Lynn on February 7, 2024 at 7:45 PM
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      Dear Barb,
      You are most welcome and I thank God for using me (in spite of me!) for His glory.

    • Lee Anne Meinhold-Keese on February 7, 2024 at 4:54 PM
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    One of the statements said to me while going through the beginning of cancer treatments for ovarian cancer state 3c was, “We are all going to die sometime”. It was cruel and minimized my feelings for what I was going through. It additionally made me fell as if I didn’t matter.

      • Lynn on February 7, 2024 at 7:48 PM
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      Dear Lee Anne,
      Yikes! That’s a terrible one!Definitely minimizing your feelings.People who say those kind of things usually have not faced a life-threatening illness. I pray the Lord sends some good comforters and encouragers into your life.

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