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So You Can Know for the Next Time

When bad things happen to friends we care about, we often stand in silence because we don't know what to say.
PUBLISHED December 22, 2018
Sarah DeBord was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer at age 34. In the years since, she has turned her diagnosis into a calling, and become an advocate for other young adults diagnosed with colorectal cancer and parents with young families facing cancer. She works as a communications and program manager for the Minneapolis-based Colon Cancer Coalition , volunteers her time with the online patient-led support community COLONTOWN , and blogs about her often adventurous experiences of living with chronic cancer at

Everyone knows those situations where you are at a loss for words. Death is one of them. Any tragedy or crisis is another. I think any moment we're glad it happened to someone else and not to us is another. Be it anticipated or unexpected, what you say to someone who has experienced a serious life-changing event doesn't matter as much as just saying anything at all. A friend gave me the best advice – something I believe she read in a book, and one I filed away to use when I found myself without the words that could console or bring comfort. When something unfortunate happens and you don't know what to say, sometimes simplicity is best.
"I'm sorry for your loss," or "I'm sorry this happened to you."

It's a handful of words that say much more. It acknowledges the situation, the hurt, the sorrow and the confusion a person is feeling. And it simply lets them know you care; for one moment you didn't just continue on with your life as usual, but you stopped to consider them. In a time where most of us can't walk down the street without our heads buried in our phones, it's important that we look up and remember that the world is still moving around us. Because in that moment, it has stopped moving for someone else.

When it was me being the bearer of bad news, I had that chance to see people in action – and often inaction. I didn't expect every one of my Facebook friends to call or write or knit me a blanket. I didn't expect anything from anyone because I didn't know how to even receive it during that period of shock. But as the days and weeks and ultimately months passed after my diagnosis, people emerged with a level of care and attentiveness that left me amazed. People I didn't know, people that were only acquaintances and people who knew the place I was in only because they had been there themselves with their own family. Most surprising (and disappointing) was the friends that dropped back in silence.

I didn't have the energy to chase them down with my feelings. I didn't force the subject or volunteer information in a fishing expedition for their concern. I just sat back and watched, finally coming to the conclusion that so many of us just don't know how to handle tragedy or crisis. We don't know what to say when something bad happens, so we opt to say nothing at all. And as invasive as it may feel to say anything during that time, the silence is heard loudest of all.

When there is an accident or a fire, look around the crowd and you will see two types of people: those who run in to help without thinking, and those who stand there and stare. When you are diagnosed with cancer, you are going to have friends that will run into your fire, and you are going to be surprised at the friends that stand on the outskirts and watch. You are going to be even more surprised by the friends on the peripheral of your life, the ones you consider acquaintances, that run to you faster and harder than anyone.

Those who are going to run into your fire are born with that empathetic gene I wish every soul had. They are not afraid and are like superheroes with capes made with threads of solid love. They pour out the simple gestures that can lift you up and carry you along for the duration. Not all of us wear superhero costumes under our clothes, but it doesn't take much to make a difference – sometimes just a sentence or two. I now know how powerful it can to reach out with the smallest gesture, and know how far it can go during periods of disbelief. I tell you so you can know for the next time. Even if you find yourself cautiously standing on the sideline, know that a handful of words or a silent act of love will radiate brighter than you can imagine.


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