The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Words Matter—but Supportive Silence Can Go a Long Way

by Christina McKelvy, LPC CCMHCCaregiverNovember 20, 2023View more posts from Christina McKelvy, LPC CCMHC

Over my father’s two-month journey diagnosed with stage IV Esophageal cancer, he had a parade of visitors. Each person shared something different, many not wanting to share out loud what we all feared.

“He’s strong.”

“He’ll get through this.”

“We need to pray harder.”

“You got this!”

“It could be worse.”

Some of my father’s friends provided recommendations on alternative treatments or wanted to meet with him to pray the cancer away. People told me that I had to be strong for my family, that I had to hope, I had to pray to God, that he can heal my father. I responded to these statements sharing that these words were not helpful. When I had doubts and felt weak and did not have hope, I felt that I was failing not only him and my family, but all these individuals and God. 

Their words were starting to fill up space in my mind. I wondered if I responded truthfully to our friends, sharing that I was afraid, that I did not know what I was doing, and that I did not think he would survive—what would they think of me? Would the truth show that I no longer had hope, or that I was giving up? Giving up on my father? Giving up on God? So, fearing this, when people did speak with me, I only nodded and said, “Thank you.”

I do not know what my father really thought or felt when his friends visited. I do know that he graciously took in everyone’s platitudes with grace. He welcomed everyone, held hands with everyone, and prayed in silence when he did not think we could hear him. He prayed that God would look after his family when he died—he prayed for this more than for God to heal him. I wonder, while he was praying in silence, what words was he saying to himself? What were his thoughts?

I once overheard him saying to one of his friends, “Make sure my family is OK.”

“Mike, you’ll be fine.”

He nodded, and he would repeat, “Make sure my family is OK.”

As a therapist, I have an understanding that we all process death and change differently. Some of us need the hard truth right away, while some of us need encouragement and words of hope. Others may avoid the situation as long as they can. How we navigate grief and change is based on our cultural background, lived experiences, fears, and perspectives.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross spoke and wrote about The Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, and Acceptance. When I remember all the responses I received when my father was going through his cancer journey, I think of the first stage, denial. Here people may provide words of encouragement, but as they are sharing these words, we must wonder, is it for them or for you? When they are saying, “Everything will be OK,” or “You/they will get through this,” they may be telling themselves those words so they can process and make sense of their grief. Now taking that into consideration, it provides a framework, or an understanding, of where my father’s friends and my family were coming from, allowing me to take their condolences with a grain of thought and compassion.

Often, we want to shout positive platitudes to ease the pain, our own pain. It is easier to verbally bring joy and hope than to face the truth, especially if the truth is hard. When someone might not survive cancer, we can struggle with that reality, so, we shield our pain with a smile. The pain of knowing that we may lose that individual is too great, we mask it with words. It’s going to be OK. Pain and loss are uncomfortable feelings, so it makes sense that positive platitudes are more for those saying them than the ones receiving them.

Later, when things settled down, a few days after my father’s initial diagnosis, my grandparents and two of his closest friends were honest, sharing that they were afraid and that I had to start preparing emotionally, but also logistically. Honestly, after a few days of being able to sort out my thoughts, I realized that the truth was what I needed at the time. I was grateful for the truth. They were comfortable sharing their fears, and it was also needed because I needed to know the reality to assist with my father’s affairs. It was a plan for the worst, hope for the best mentality. 

Sitting with him, planning out the next few months, seeing him lying in the hospital bed, I wondered, was he scared? What words and feelings was he holding back to appear strong for us? I knew my father was scared, but his fear was focused on his family and what would happen to us when he was gone. He wanted to make sure we were OK. Him hearing me talk about our family’s needs, getting legal paperwork together, and updating him on all that progress was a comfort to him. He was reassured we were going to be OK.

There are so many words we can share with our loved ones while they are dealing with cancer and are trying to navigate the changes that cancer may bring. However, some of the strongest words are the ones we do not say at all. I know it was comforting to him to hear me tell him about the progress of his affairs, but I also know that it was a comfort when I was just still in the presence of my father. When I was just present with him, sitting with him, enjoying our time together—I know that meant the most to him.

Being present with our loved ones, sitting in supportive silence instead of trying to fill the silence with words to ease our own discomfort, can do a lot. Supportive silence is being present with them, letting your loved one lead, instead of finding things to say, possibly not saying anything at all. You do not need to fill the silence with your own thoughts. Maybe you take their hand, rub their shoulder, and let them cry. Perhaps you sit with them and read a book, bring them food, or do errands. I am not advocating saying nothing at all but sitting with the reason behind your words. A simple, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m here for you,” can go a long way. If you must share your thoughts, acknowledge what you may be feeling, recognize any discomfort, pause to think before you offer your verbal platitudes, and sort these out first before sharing. Think to yourself, is what you are going to say is helpful or not helpful?

Looking back at my experience with my father, I know that I was frustrated with the words people often used. I know that I too said things that were unnecessary. Reflecting on their words and mine, I hope what I shared with him was what he needed to hear. But I know that being present with him was a bigger comfort to him.

Six days before he died, my father told us it was going to be his last weekend. That day we were all together, my mother, my sister, and myself. We did not dispute his thoughts and feelings about his future. We did not say he was wrong. We did not try to convince him that he was going to be healed or that the doctors were going to figure out a cure for his cancer. We did not try to ease our own pain by filling in the silence with our words. Instead, we responded to his own feelings by playing songs he recorded of himself years ago, and he sang along. We all sang along. He died the following Saturday. He died knowing that his own words expressed, his own feelings shared about his family being OK when he was gone, were heard.

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