What Not To Say To People Who Are Worrying

I finally succumbed to the hype and read The Fault in Our Stars recently. Everywhere I go, I see piles of copies of it in book stores, posters advertising the movie and people enthusing about it on social media, so I thought I would try it and see what all the fuss is about. The latest craze in YA fiction, The Fault in Our Stars fits into a genre which is being called “sick lit”. First we had sparkly vampires (e.g. Twilight), then we had dystopian worlds (e.g. The Hunger Games and others) and now, “sick lit”, as YA books with themes of terminal illness are flying off the shelves.

The Fault in Our Stars (image courtesy of Goodreads)

The title of The Fault in Our Stars is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, for we are underlings”. It is a majestic title and the pages that follow are a sensitively written portrayal of a teenage girl, Hazel, who is suffering from terminal cancer. A medical breakthrough drug bought her a few more years, during which she falls in love with a boy, Augustus Waters, who has started coming to the Cancer Kid Support Group that Hazel attends.

Although the characters are vividly portrayed and Green’s writing made me feel sympathetic for Hazel and Augustus, I felt rather underwhelmed after I turned the last page. I read it quickly but do not feel compelled to pick up another of Green’s books. His writing, and The Fault in Our Stars in particular, has legions of fans. Am I missing something? Maybe I should try it again.

There was, however, one particular aspect of this book that I found thought-provoking: the way people use metaphors and analogies to describe serious illnesses, such as describing cancer as a battle or as a journey. To me, the phrase “cancer journey” sounds like trying to put a positive spin on it, when sometimes there isn’t one. Yet society constantly uses metaphors for things that we find difficult to talk about, such as illness and death.

It’s part of our incessant need to be positive, to reassure ourselves.  I have met similar situations myself, when well-meaning people say “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine”. But I know what it feels like for everything to not be fine. Right now, in fact, I’m feeling uncertain and fearful about the future because I am worried about certain things going on in my life at the moment, notably my mother’s need for further medical treatment soon. She was very ill less than two years ago and needs more treatment, otherwise she will become ill again. I am grateful for every day that she is with me but I worry about her a lot.

From my point of view, the least helpful thing to say to people who are worrying is “everything is going to be okay”. Instead of trying to quell someone’s worry with a well-intentioned but unhelpful platitude, just listen.

“Compassionate listening brings about healing” — Thich Nhat Hanh

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14 thoughts on “What Not To Say To People Who Are Worrying

  1. Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts about this book. I read it a while ago and was, frankly, a little bit disgusted by the end. It seemed as though John Green was taking advantage of a tragic situation, especially since I don’t think he added anything new or helpful to the conversation surrounding terminal illness. Have you ever read Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor”? It’s really quite profound!

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    • Thanks for your comment, Alina. I just felt conflicted over this book. It has so many glowing reviews but I don’t understand why. Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian about the movie, called it a “prettified cancer fantasy”.

      Although I haven’t seen the movie, I think that his description could be extended to the book. When I read it, it didn’t feel raw and real. It felt more like a fantasy, a sad one, but a fantasy nevertheless. The characters are also annoying and pretentious at times, e.g. Augustus’s habit of walking around with an unlit cigarette in his mouth: “It’s a metaphor, see: you put the killing thing right between your teeth but you don’t give it the power to do its killing”. Really? Who would actually do something as pretentious and contrived as that?

      I haven’t read the book you mentioned but it does sound interesting.

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  2. You are the second blogger friend of mine who was underwhelmed by the book and as I value both your opinion and my other friend’s, I think I’ll be passing up on this one as well. My other friend read Looking for Alaska first and she loved it, so she had high expectations for TFiOS and was disappointed. However, I do hope this experience doesn’t put you off John Green completely since I’ve heard his other books were great.
    I completely agree with you that when things are genuinely not going well, it’s unhelpful and rather irritating when other people still try to tell you that everything will be fine. I’m all for optimism but definitely not euphemism or sugarcoating. Wishing you the strength and energy to deal with this rough patch at the moment.

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    • Ah, perhaps I started off with the wrong John Green book. Maybe I should have read Looking for Alaska first, because I definitely wasn’t impressed with TFiOS.

      Thanks for your sympathy, Lillian. It’s especially difficult because I’m supposed to go away to Spain in the autumn for the third year of my degree. But I keep worrying about it and wondering whether it would be best to switch to a three-year course and finish my degree this year. It’s not an easy decision to make!

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  3. It”s always so difficult to know what to say when someone has a serious illness–and sometimes I have a tendency to say nothing, but that doesn’t seem quite right. If I say the wrong thing, I hope that the ill person and their family know that I was at least trying show that I cared.

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  4. Sorry to hear this news about your mother. Your time in Spain sounds amazing, but I can understand not wanting to be so far away from her.

    I tend to avoid any and all narratives and films about cancer. My mother has survived five kinds of it and I live in terror of it. I can’t even be around people discussing it. So these sorts of “entertainments” leave me cold.

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    • Thank you for the sympathy.

      I’ve made a difficult decision and decided not to go to Spain this year. I spent two weeks thinking, stressing about making the decision and weighing everything up. After taking a year’s leave of absence in 2012 to care for my mother, I really want to get my BA finished and support my mum while she is undergoing treatment.

      It was a great opportunity and I felt very conflicted but I know I have made the right decision. I’m only 21 and there will be plenty of time (I hope) for travelling in the future. And Spain will always be there!

      Five kinds, wow. She must be a strong lady!

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  5. I agree with you that the least helpful thing you can say to people is “Everything’s going to be OK” when there’s no way you can know that. When we were dating my husband used to say that when I got really upset about something until one day I glared at him and yelled, “Stop saying that! You can’t possibly know that! It feels like you’re lying to me!” Now he only says it when he can actually explain to me how it’s going to be OK.

    I do think people try to talk positively to those who are seriously ill in part because they don’t know what to say and in part because there’s a ton of research on how mental positivity can affect physical health. Whereas people who succumb to despair are more likely to give up physically as well. Though I agree with you that that’s no reason to lie to people or to say things you don’t genuinely believe to be true.

    I’m not a person with cancer, but I don’t find the phrase “cancer journey” particularly problematic because I don’t see “journey” as a necessarily positive thing. To me, journey is value-neutral. Everyone with cancer is on a journey and some will end with recovery and some will end won’t. But that’s just my opinion.

    I know this is old but I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I hope she is doing well now.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I think it’s something that a lot of people say, probably because it’s something to say when people aren’t sure what to say. I guess the main point of my post was that as human beings, many of us try to cover up things that are unpleasant or that scare us.

      I absolutely agree that mental positivity is a great thing. My mother has been amazingly positive throughout her ordeal and she tries to practice positive thinking. As do I, although it can be difficult sometimes!

      Re: the phrase “cancer journey” – I appreciate your viewpoint. Maybe it was the way I felt when I read the book, but I’ve read that using metaphors for illness isn’t always a good thing. There are a few academic journal papers about it. I am an aspiring linguist and all the different ways in which language has power is fascinating to me! I think that the journey phrase is better than the violent metaphors (battle/fight, etc) that are often used.

      Thank you also for your sympathy. It’s an old post, but unfortunately the situation is ongoing. There is a new type of treatment that could easily cure her, but it is very expensive and the NHS (we are in the UK) isn’t funding it for everyone. It is shocking, isn’t it, that the lives of people are determined by money. Thankfully, her consultant had better news last month and I are praying that she can get started on the medication by April. In the meantime, we wait and hope…

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      • I get what you’re saying about using metaphors in general as being unhelpful and that makes sense. I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. I’ve heard stories before about how the funding works in the UK – some of the horror stories told in the US to try to keep us from going the same route with our insurance (don’t think it worked). That’s so terrible and must make you all feel quite helpless. I sincerely hope and pray that she is able to get the medication she needs and will recover.

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        • Thank you.

          It is terrible and it’s a very worrying situation. The pharmaceutical company has priced this particular med so high that there has been backlash across the world. In the US, there was a Senate Finance Commission investigation into the astronomically high price of the drug. So although the NHS should fund it for people who need it, I think the pharmaceutical company should lower their price. People shouldn’t be profiteering from other people’s illness.

          At least in the UK, there is always some form of treatment available for people without having to pay. My mother could be treated with a different type of medication (although the side effects are horrible and the success rate is only 30%, as opposed to 90% with the new meds), so she has chosen to wait in the hope she will get the new one. And she had major surgery two years ago, which would cost approx. $500,000 in the US. In the UK, we didn’t have to pay a penny for that.

          The current government is making steps to privatize the NHS (a la the US), but I’m strongly anti-privatization and I support universal, public healthcare for all. I’ve heard many awful stories from the US about people who can’t afford medical bills and aren’t treated because they don’t have good insurance. Just the other day, I read a story about an American mother who is trying to raise money for her baby’s heart surgery, presumably because she doesn’t have insurance. In the UK, that simply wouldn’t happen. I don’t know if it’s getting any better with Obamacare?

          Apologies for the lengthy comment! Healthcare is an issue about which I have strong feelings.

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