Q. Now in my later ages, I mean past 65, I find more and more of my long-time friends and colleagues are either passing away, seriously or terminally ill, or fighting depression or various kinds of what doctors are now referring to as anxieties. I remember back when we used to have more fun and not take some things so seriously. I still stay in touch with my friends and either call them or visit them when I can. My problem is, I never know the proper or right thing to say or not say. Sometimes, I leave my depressed friend after we have had lunch together wondering if I made him feel better or worse by unconsciously saying the wrong thing. I know some of my other friends, like me, question themselves the same way. Could you address this issue and provide some guidance please?
A. Yes, thank you for this question. It is one which has been a topic of discussion within my own circle of friends more frequently, regardless of our age. It is a difficult question because each person’s relationship with the individual who is going through these difficulties, the extent of, and the specific point in time when we visit or talk to these individuals, vary and change. Our emotions and the individual’s emotions vary and go through different stages. Our knowledge of the situation and the illness, and our educational background are factors as well.
We are not all doctors and clergy who are far better at knowing what to say and not to say. From these professionals, as well as experienced etiquette affiliates; our own emotional feelings and general caring for others; what we have been taught as right and wrong; the comments published in various literary documents; from those who are going through, or who have gone through these difficulties; and the comments family members have been willing to share, I can provide a list of What to Say and Not to Say relative to the various categories you identified, which hopefully will help you. For example:
What to say or do when someone is depressed, or has an anxiety, or is dying:
▪ Do reach out to the person and be there for them as much as you can.
▪ Say, “Would you like some company for a while?”
▪ - Be willing to continue to see them, talk to them, even if the person continues to be depressed. remains anxious or gets closer to death.
▪ Say, “I want you to know I care and am here for you.”
▪ Say, “If there is anything I can do to help, I want to do that.” Then be specific: There is this new book I was reading ... I would like to bring it to you to read. There is a new restaurant ... let’s go there for lunch tomorrow. There’s a new movie out ... let’s go see it. I feel like going to the zoo today, let’s go.” Or, “There’s a new series on TV ... let’s watch it together.”
▪ Be willing to reminisce about whatever this person wants to talk about.
▪ Ask: Do you feel like talking about it? I’m a good listener (and then listen).
▪ Ask: “Have you talked to your physician about how you are feeling because sometimes there are medications which can help you feel better?”
▪ Say: “I will stop by again tomorrow” or “I will call you later today.” And then do that.
▪ Say: “I want you to know you can call me at any time. It doesn’t matter how late it is.”
▪ Ask: “Would you like to talk to your pastor or a minister?”
▪ Offer to give them a hug or ask if you can give them a hug.
Now, here’s what not to say or do:
▪ Don’t pry into things that are not your business, like what medications are you taking. “Are you doing everything the doctor told you to do?”
▪ Do not tell the person what to do: “You need to eat this!” “You’re just not drinking enough water.” “You should be getting up more.”
▪ Don’t get angry or show anger toward the person because you are upset about something.
▪ Don’t make promises you know you can’t keep.
▪ Before you say you will do something, make sure you can.
▪ Don’t push your religious beliefs on them or religion if it is not something they want to talk about
The bottom line is that we are all human and make mistakes. There is no complete or proper list of what we should say or do, or not say and not do. If we concentrate or stress too much about saying the wrong or improper thing, we make it more difficult and possibly uncomfortable for ourselves and the individual, which sometimes then causes us to avoid or turn away from that person about whom we are concerned.
Part of proper etiquette, is giving an apology when necessary: “I’m sorry if I said something to upset you”; “I didn’t mean to say that”, or confessing “I wish I knew the right thing to say, but I want you to know I care.”