It happens to all of us; someone we know gets a scary diagnosis, has an accident or their cancer returns. What can we say and do when a friend, loved one, colleague or community member gets bad news?


One frequent response is to express how sorry we are that this has happened. And while it is helpful to know that people show empathy for us, one of the most caring and supportive things to do is be present.

When a member of my friend Sarah’s church was diagnosed with cancer, she reached out. They were not friends in the traditional sense; they had not enjoyed a meal together or met for coffee, but they shared some mutual friends and common interests. Sarah was quite familiar with cancer, as a family member was a cancer survivor, so she was not fearful in reaching out. She sent “thinking of you” cards and emails, and she called periodically. The chats proved satisfying to both, and when the cancer recurred, it felt natural to Sarah to resume the supportive role. 

It’s not so unusual for someone not an intimate to step forward and extend support during difficult times. Many people have shared that the friends and loved ones they expected would be there for them were not; but there were always others who they did not expect who filled the void. As one friend told me, “Many people are fearful when they hear about my illness. It makes them feel fragile and vulnerable. The people who are most supportive seem to have had experience themselves or with a family member with some health issue.”


This is often the case when it comes to death. People know exactly what to do following a death; we attend funerals and memorial services, we send sympathy cards, and we make donations. But when it comes to supporting the bereaved weeks later, we falter. The most supportive individuals are usually the ones who have had personal experience with death.


You don’t have to have personal experience with illness or death to write a note, send an email or make a call. Be present and you will brighten someone’s day. It will make you feel good to know that your effort has made a difference.

 Image via Flickr Creative Commons / Steven List

Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now at a reduced price for e-books for "Illness & Death," "Suicide," "Miscarriage," "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store. Click here to order.

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