During your loved one’s journey with ALS, did friends, coworkers, or medical professionals make well-meaning but insensitive comments? Even the most well-intentioned person can utter inappropriate “words of encouragement” and behave in a hurtful manner. Being around terminal illness can make people uncomfortable, and as a result, they unintentionally say the exact wrong thing. As a caregiver, it’s not uncommon to hear, “It’s God’s will,” “Things happen for a reason,” “I don’t know how you do it,” “I know how you feel,” and “Aren’t you relieved that it is all over?”, among others. Isn’t it preferable to be a good listener, do a helpful chore for the family, or give a hug, which are true expressions of kindness and compassion?
Like many of you, I heard some questionable comments during my husband Brian’s 5-year battle with ALS. Let me relate two instances:
- After a hospice visit one afternoon, our visiting nurse told me that it would be better if Brian passed away. I was taken back and did not know how to respond to this unsolicited remark. Was she offering her personal opinion, or was there a medical basis for her comment? (I believe it was the former.)
- We had some friends over at a time when Brian was losing his ability to talk and be understood. One person commented (in Brian’s presence) that he must have lost some of his mental faculties. Nothing could have been further from the truth, at least in Brian’s case. Sadly, this friend conflated slurred speech from ALS with dementia or diminished mental capacity.
Fortunately, for every awkward, misguided comment, there are wonderful supportive friends, colleagues, and family who stand with you and your loved one and want to help. Actions speak louder than words, and you quickly learn who is and isn’t there for you and your family.
While doing research on what not to say to a caregiver, I came across a 2009 blog post by Fern Cohen, a writer and ALS patient, who addressed this topic from the perspective of an ALS patient. In her post entitled, “What Do I Do? What Do I Say?” (http://alsny.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-do-i-do-what-do-i-say.html), Fern discussed how people’s own attitudes toward serious illness may shape their interactions with an ALS patient, and she shared her coping mechanisms in these situations. Fern’s post helped put some of my experiences with awkward verbal exchanges into perspective in ways that I had not contemplated previously. For example, maybe I misread a well-intentioned but misplaced comment because of the stress I was experiencing that particular day. I now think that the interpretation of these comments may be partly influenced by the stress level in the household and on the caregiver.
Have you or your loved one been surprised by comments from friends or family? How did you respond? Please share your experiences and thoughts on this or any aspect of caregiving, current or past, in the comments section. Let’s continue the conversation.
Idelle Winer was primary caregiver to her husband Brian, who passed away in 2010 after a 5-year battle with ALS. A retired medical publishing professional, Idelle offers her unique perspective on a variety of caregiving topics in our feature Caregiver Confidential.
Visit www.alsa-stl.org for more information and resources for caregivers of people with ALS.