The Best Way to Help a Friend With a Terminally Ill Parent

“Mommy has cancer.”

I looked back, blankly.

I already knew, at age 6, that “cancer” is supposed to be scary, but so was the sound of the vacuum cleaner, and I wasn’t sure how bad this was. But I knew it must be bad-bad and not just sort-of-bad once the apologies flooded in.

Mom’s friends said things like, “Oh, sweetie,” and, “I’m so sorry,” and “Everything is going to be all right!”

At an age when my biggest decisions involved which Beanie Baby to bring to my best friend Ryan’s house, these types of apologies softened the blow; they made me feel like everything really was going to be all right.

But now, I’m an adult. And everything isn’t “all right.” At the time of her first diagnosis, Mom wasn’t terminal. But, after two reocurrences, her oncologist confessed, “We’re out of options.”

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These days, “Everything is going to be all right” and other beige apologies are hurtful. They make my face burn red and my hands curl into fists. Everything is most certainly not going to be all right. My mother is in pain. She is going to die. And that’s not all right with me.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am. It’s hard not to be calloused after seeing someone you love suffer for so long. While most children of just-diagnosed terminally ill parents see them pass within weeks, perhaps months, I’ve seen my mom struggle years past her prognosis.

Some might call this a miracle, but I hesitate. Although she’s been gifted more time, most of it is spent curled up in a ball crying or vomiting and asking, “God, why?”

This is the reality. It isn’t nice or kind or pleasant to look at. It isn’t a story you put in “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

It’s understandable, then, why “I’m sorry” is an automatic response from friends and family. Even I have caught myself saying it. And while it’s a normal reaction to feel sorry, please don’t say it. I’m not at all sure how to respond when someone does. Do I say, “Thank you?”

But I’m not thankful for your being sorry, and neither is my mom. Neither of us wants you to feel sorry because (1) it makes us feel like you’re asking for consolation, which we have little left to give, and (2) it makes us feel like we should feel sorry for ourselves.

Instead, Mom and I prefer to feign optimism.

We ruminate the stray moments of pleasure she’s gifted. Opening the curtains on a bright day. Watching her mammoth lab-mix merrily roll on the floor after eating dinner as she calls out, “It’s a puppy party!” Cuddling up on the couch while watching the Food Network and ordering drive-thru Starbucks.

Thus, the appropriate response to the above shouldn’t be, “I’m sorry.” This type of apology ends up only serving the speaker.

So, “It’s going to be all right,” and “I’m sorry,” are booted off the list. What about sending cards, flowers, or food?

Although I recognize these are kind gestures, it’s better to keep to the rule, “No surprises.”

A prime example: I love flowers. When my boyfriend surprises me with a bouquet of daisies, I smile until it hurts.

Do you know who also loves flowers? My mother’s cat. You see where this is going. If you don’t, picture this: shattered terra-cotta, tiny kitty teeth marks on petals, a cat bellowing with tummy troubles and a fat emergency-vet bill.

OK then, what about food? Everyone loves food. But while a gooey pot of mac and cheese might look heavenly to you, it’s not as appetizing when you’re not feeling well or have pain-medication side effects. Plus, the terminal parent and their family could have food allergies or special diets.

So, although you might make the best mac and cheese in the neighborhood, it’s better to remember, “No surprises.”

So you shouldn’t say, “Sorry,” and you shouldn’t surprise them with well-meant gifts. You might be asking, “What’s left, Scrooge?”

Who has helped you most after a loss?


There is an answer, a phrase. I love it. I don’t feel awkward once it’s been said,  I don’t have to console you, and I don’t have to pay emergency-vet bills.

It is this: “What can I do?”

This question suggests not only that you’re empathetic, but also that you’re proactive. It breaks down the wall of “I’m sorry” with a Thor hammer and says, “I can’t make your mom’s illness disappear with words, but I can add a tiny dose of joy to your lives.”

“What can I do?”

If you’re a friend of my mother’s I might answer, “Could you call her and just see how she’s doing?” Or “Could you grab her some Gatorade?” Or “Could you swing by and walk her dog?”

If you’re my friend, I might ask for a hug. Or I might ask, “Want to binge-watch ‘Stranger Things’ and eat a pint of Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey?”

Other times, I’ll say, “Nothing at all.” And I’ll smile. Because you know that you can’t fix her. Because you understand.

Because I’m not alone.

Originally published Feb. 20, 2019.

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