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The Death, Divorce and Illness Etiquette Guide

Here's what to say and what NOT to say.

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gif of serious life scenarios with tough topics of discussions, divorce, illness, death, what not to say
Rami Niemi
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For this Thanksgiving week, we're showcasing a few of our favorite articles from the past few years in this special issue. Enjoy! We hope you have a wonderful holiday with family and friends. We so appreciate each and every one of you.

Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with my first bout of cancer. I had it again and am in full remission now, so this is not a tragic tale. All sorts of lovely supportive wishes headed my way, all of them appreciated. Except for one.

A former coworker sent a handwritten letter. She had popped for a stamp and taken the time to walk to a mailbox. She’d made a real effort to convey this charming message: “So sorry about your unfortunate news. The underlying emotional causes of cancer are usually unexpressed anger and unresolved resentment.”

She then went on to say how I needed to deal with any repressed hostilities. Ouch. Did she just blame me for my cancer? Along the way of life’s road bumps, we offer each other words of comfort. Our hearts are in the right place and our intentions are good, but still — sometimes we end up scoring major points on the cringe-o-meter. I’ve been guilty as charged. When I was in my early 20s, a friend told me about her miscarriage. In an effort to make her feel better, I said, “That’s a good thing, right? A miscarriage means the baby wouldn’t have been normal?”

She is still my friend. Though I’m not sure why. It can be daunting to find the right words to comfort someone going through a crisis. We panic over what to say, stumble into solace. So, let’s start by eliminating what not to say. Then let’s hopefully agree that if all these thanks-but-no-thanks remarks are stricken from the roster of caring sentiments, we’ll all cringe a little less. 


“You’re still attractive. You’ll find someone else.” Maybe one should wait until the end of the funeral service before encouraging the bereaved spouse to start dating.

“We all die sometime.” That is undeniably true. But the problem is one of timing. Sometimes “sometime” is too damn soon.

“It was for the best.” This is usually said in reference to a dearly departed who has suffered a great deal. In which case there is no best about it.

“He’s in a better place.” Prove it.

“She had a great life.” This condolence made my California friend Lynn go ballistic when her 98-year-old mom died. She kept hearing it from solicitous friends. “I don’t care if she was 200 years old,” Lynn says. “I didn’t want her to die. It’s a dismissal of the loss.”

I had my own inner-ballistic moment when my mother died. After the funeral service callers stopped in to console the family. And eat from the buffet. My sister’s neighbor introduced herself to me, and, gripping my hands in hers, said: “I know how you feel. My cat died last week.” I admit it. I did a bit of a jaw-drop. I’m sure her cat was adorable — the sweetest, most playful and loving cat ever. Perhaps he was her whole world. But I didn’t know how to respond — so I just said thank you and offered her a corned beef sandwich. 


“All men are despicable.” Somebody has not worked through their personal anger.

“Don’t rush into this. There’s nobody good out there.” Second-guessing someone’s difficult decision just makes the decision more difficult.

“I heard rumors he was fooling around.” Well, thanks for sharing. Might have been nice if you mentioned that sooner. Or not at all. Actually, not at all would be best.

“I knew she was trouble.” Well, weren’t you the astute one. I guess I was an idiot. Thanks for pointing that out.

My friend Mackie still bristles from the “never liked him anyway” comments. As she puts it: “Telling friends I was divorcing my husband unleashed this barrage of criticism about him, like ‘loser’ and ‘never knew what you saw in him.’ But the comments — which were intended to be supportive — felt insulting. They made me feel like a loser because my judgment was so bad.”


“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Let me get this straight: If I weren’t so capable … I wouldn’t be in the hospital?

“You’re so brave.” I don’t know why this strikes me as patronizing, but it does. Or maybe it doesn’t, and it’s just my repressed hostilities reacting.

A Chicago friend volunteered to walk her neighbor’s dog … her neighbor’s BIG dog, which pulled her forward and down onto the pavement. She posted a photo on Facebook showing the X-ray of her broken lower leg with the six pins in it. One “friend” wrote: “Oh, how painful!” And continued to recount breaking her arm 10 years earlier — complete with harrowing details —  and stating (in all caps) that it was THE WORST.

Explaining why that is not helpful would be an insult to common sense everywhere, but here goes. Four words: It’s not about you.

Or how about: “Good luck on your journey.” This one just might be me again, but I hate the word “journey.” I realize it’s on all sorts of greeting cards but nobody on an illness “journey” just checked into the Four Seasons. If a journey is something that goes from here to there … you don’t want the stops to be CT scans and biopsies. Let’s save “journey” for Hawaiian cruises. 

So, what consolations can we offer when a dear one’s life has gone amok? Try one of these three options: Bring a meal. Give a hug. Say: “That sucks.” Any one of those in any situation will be appropriate at any time. Mix and match them and see for yourself. They also work for job losses, mean bosses, sprained wrists, strained relationships, broken hearts, fender benders, lost wallets, lost pride, lost puppies. Basically … anything. Just showing up and acknowledging that you’re concerned — being there — can say it all. 

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