My 2-year-old niece is battling cancer. What can I say to be supportive?
June 5, 2014 2:35 AM   Subscribe

I have been with my partner for over 5 years and know his family fairly well. A little over a year ago his brother's one year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. His daughter, whom I consider as a niece even though my partner and I are not married, has now been battling cancer for over a year. It appears to be quite aggressive. When my sister-in-law calls to give me updates about their daughter's condition (or vice-versa), what can I say to be supportive and express that I care? More details inside.

I am introverted and have trouble expressing myself in general and tend to overthink what I should say. I send her text messages of support when I know her daughter will be going into surgery or have chemo. I have also offered to babysit when needed (which they have taken me up on before). However, when I talk with my sister-in-law on the phone I don't know what to say after she expresses her fears and gives me updates on her daughter's conditions. These updates tend to be negative.

I want to remain positive. She has said to me before that she can't stand it when people say they don't know how she is doing this, this is just such terrible news, etc. because she of course already knows how terrible it is. She is not religious, nor am I, so it seems inappropriate to say "I am praying for you".

As a side-note, I live abroad and all these conversations are taking place in my second language, which adds to my anxiety of saying the wrong thing.
posted by Blissful to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Somewhere between "Oh how terrible! I don't know how you survive this!" and "Don't worry, the sun will come out tomorrow!" is a place of listening, thoughtfulness and love that doesn't engender the horror of the situation nor spout useless (and perhaps untrue) smiley platitudes.

Honestly, it sounds like you're doing well, just being willing to quietly listen and letting her know you're thinking about them are probably tremendous and appreciated ways to support the family.

It's also OK to carry on a conversation about other, less troubling, aspects of their lives, injecting a bit of normal might be a pleasant change for them. Does Niece love anything in particular (kittens, puppies, princesses, etc)? Texting a photo of uber-cute kitty for her so mom can show her, "Hey sweetheart, look what Aunt Blissful sent for you!" might be appreciated and bring smiles.

You've identified that you tend to overthink things, so now let go of your head insisting on the need to say the "perfect thing" and allow your heart to conduct the interaction.

And, sometimes being a part of the loving support isn't so much about what you say, but the other person's perception of your love and caring, with or without words. In my darkest moments it was often that person who would simply sit and listen, be it on the chair next to me or from 1,000 miles away via phone or e/mail, that provided the most support and hope.

Peace to all of you.
posted by HuronBob at 3:10 AM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I think of you and niece often, with so much love and hope. Anytime you need to call and you want me just to listen while you cry or complain or anything, just pick up the phone." That's the long reply.

That she is good with you babysitting an ill child means a lot, and that she keeps calling is also good. Just remind her every now and then that you love the little girl and think of them often and that you are always glad to be able to listen and help. That means a lot already.

Personally I wouldn't say longterm hopeful things but short term non-cancer related things like how much you look forward to seeing them on the weekend, or that you saw a cute cartoon t-shirt you thought your niece would like, etc. Short-term future happy normal things about her are also welcome so it's not always about the illness. (When our baby was very ill, one thing I appreciated was people who made plans to see her or talked about regular baby things as well, not so much focusing on the operations and risks but as if they were confident she would survive the surgery and she was a regular baby)

Most countries have support groups for families who have lost children. If the news is grim, you may want to contact the group and ask for advice and put your family in touch.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:15 AM on June 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

You say, "I'm so sorry to hear all of this. Tell me as much or as little as you want to. But I'm always happy to listen to you laugh, cry, vent or whinge.... and also to distract you with other topics if you prefer. We're family, you've got permission to say whatever you like to me and I'll always understand. I also want to help in any way I can. I'll make suggestions from time it time, but if you think of something that needs doing and you don't have the time or energy or inclination to do it.... I'm volunteering to be the person to do it, every time. I can be a bit awkward on the phone, but I love you and niece and so does my partner and we have got your backs."

You know what, regardless of you being married, she"s still your niece and you've got a good heart. There's no real script that's right. Be sensitive to letting her rant and an introvert you'll be much better at it than a lot of people she's dealing with. But remember that she can lean on anyone she wants, and you always lean elsewhere.

Hugs. A sick child is a harrowing thing to deal with. Big hugs.
posted by taff at 3:17 AM on June 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

...what can I say to be supportive and express that I care?

This might not be a "saying" situation. It seems like you are being quite helpful by listening.

In addition to that perhaps consider sending some type of gift - books or toys or a movie - to either the kid or the parents - something to provide a distraction.

I'm certain your concern is noticed.
posted by vapidave at 3:25 AM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's not necessarily the best thing with people you don't know well, but with family, I think you can go ahead and TELL the person that you don't really know the right words to say, but that you're there for them in any way you can be.
posted by Sequence at 3:25 AM on June 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think sometimes people underestimate the value of both listening and validating. When she tells you she's afraid, saying something like "Of course you are, anyone would be" isn't not being positive, it's meeting her where she is.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:32 AM on June 5, 2014 [12 favorites]

She probably calls you BECAUSE you're not saying all that goopy stuff. My sister made friends with her neighbor, who is now a member of OUR family, during her struggle with breast cancer. They walk their dogs together, and when Sissy found out about Kathleen's cancer she said, "Look, I'm cool with whatever you want to tell me, or we can talk about everything under the sun EXCEPT your cancer. If you need me to walk your dogs during Chemo, just let me know." Being someone who isn't offering advice, or offering platitudes or expecting that a person always wants to be brave is SUCH a comfort when dealing with something horrible like this.

Basically give your SIL permission to be sad, scared, angry and anything else she needs to be. As for the baby, remember that she's a kid, and she wants to have fun, and giggle, when she's feeling up to it. Buy her silly hats, offer to make her up like Toddlers and Tiaras, teach her songs to sing.

Also, there's no wrong thing that YOU can say, that can't be taken back with, "this is so awful and awkward, I wish there was something I could say or do that would make it right."

One thing you can do is take your SIL out for a spa day, or invite her over and do it in your kitchen. EVERYONE needs respite.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:20 AM on June 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

Two years ago my close friend's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. What my friend needed out of me depended on what was going on and how she was feeling. Sometimes she needed to talk, wanted confirmation that, yes, things were hard. Sometimes she needed someone to hold her hand while she cried. Sometimes she needed a little cheerleading, like, hey, that new treatment sounds like a good step or she got to do normal family/hobby things, that's great! And sometimes, as other have mentioned, she did not want to talk about the cancer at all. Sometimes you need a break.

So listen to what she's saying and respond in kind. Validate her feelings.

You are wonderful for the support you're offering her and the rest of the family.
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:40 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I lost my 4 year old nephew to cancer last year.
Two of those years he was undergoing surgery and chemo and radiation.
I speak with experience that the absolute best best best thing you can do is be there.
Be present.
Be available.
Sometimes it's the smallest words or actions that can mean the most to the parents of the child.

Don't worry about it.
Come from a place of love.

If you come from a place of love, you will always do the right thing.

Sending you all my best.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 5:45 AM on June 5, 2014 [13 favorites]

I want to remain positive.

I take care of sick kids and while it is the natural instinct to want to be positive, there are times when there is no positive side. Lots of good advice here; listening is often better than saying much.

You don't say how close you are geographically, but be aware that having a child with a serious illness is a huge burden financially and in time (as well as other ways) If there are other children in the home they will have less attention from the parents as they take time to deal with all the things a child with cancer needs. Be understanding if they can't participate in various family activities and if you can offer your time to help out with everyday tasks such as running to the grocery store or picking up the other kids from school do so.
posted by TedW at 5:59 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not religious and what I say in situations in which others might say "I'm praying for you" is "I'm holding you in my heart." Also, "I'm keeping you in my thoughts" or "I'm sending you lots of love."
posted by janey47 at 6:28 AM on June 5, 2014

Listen to what she is saying and emphasize with and validate her as much as you can. She might say something like, "daughter is going to have surgery next week, and I am so scared." You can say, "Of course you're scared. Two-year-olds having surgery is a scary thing." You don't want her to feel dismissed or like she's worrying over nothing - because a lot of people would respond to her statement with, "Don't worry, I am sure it will be fine," which makes her feel like she's not being heard.

The key is active listening. She wants to know that you hear her and that you're really listening, and that you can have some empathy and sympathy about her situation without it turning all sugary and syrupy, or dismissive.

I would also offer to her directly to say, "I am here to listen if you want to talk about Niece, or if you would rather talk about something else." Sometimes people do want to talk about the tragedy or hardship they are going through, and sometimes they would rather talk about ANYTHING else.

You sound like a very kind and empathetic person. Keep what you say simple and just listen to her and help her to validate her feelings. I am sorry your family is going through such a difficult time right now.
posted by sutel at 7:01 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Listening is super important right now and others have given great advice about that, sutels advice about active listening is fantastic. Doing things is a great way to show love and support. Help with chores, turn up with a meal after a bad day to make sure they are eating (then leave so they don't have to socialize if they don't want to), clean their house when they are out, do a load of laundry. Spend time with your niece so the mum can have five minutes of knowing family is with her to go and shower or just sleep.
posted by wwax at 7:55 AM on June 5, 2014

I agree with those above that you don't need to say much. You will be doing great if you ask keep asking how they're doing and listening to the answer. Medical odysseys are long and strange and all-consuming. When I was going through something similar, I worried about depressing people who asked how we were doing, so a sincere offer to listen was always appreciated. As far as things not to say, I bristled at anything that came off as advice, especially medical advice. I felt it implied we weren’t doing everything we could, even though I’m sure that wasn’t how it was meant. I would have been much happier with hugs and offers to cook or clean the bathroom. It’s great that you’re trying to do right for them – I hope for the best for your family.
posted by abecedarium radiolarium at 8:34 AM on June 5, 2014

Maybe having few simple phrases in mind that you can punctuate the conversation with while you're listening might make you feel more comfortable during these conversations (given that, as suggested above, listening is probably the best thing you can do). As others have said, you want things that don't try and diminish how tough things are but simply acknowledge their situation, like:

"I'm sorry"
"Poor you"
"That's so tough"
"What a week"
"And what happened next?"

It'll at least mean you're not scared to open your mouth for fear of saying the wrong thing.
posted by penguin pie at 11:19 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you to everyone for your advice and encouraging words. They are much appreciated.

Many of you mentioned active listening and validation, and I am grateful for the tips in these areas. Thanks once again!
posted by Blissful at 1:36 PM on June 5, 2014

I've never had a kid with cancer, but I have cancer myself and I imagine there is some overlap with the kind of anxiety and depression involved. Off the top of my head, the one thing that nobody has said to me, that I would kind of like to hear, is something like, "You will get through this. You are stronger than you think, and you can beat this thing." Listening is great, sympathy is nice, but a little bit of cheerleading would make a difference. I don't think people get pep talks often enough, and when you're really down it can be empowering to feel like somebody has faith in you to do great things.

Tell her she's awesome and strong, and she has an awesome, strong little girl. I'm pretty sure she won't mind hearing that.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:51 PM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

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