Is there anything I can do?

I’m meeting someone I haven’t seen for a while. It’s obvious that he or she is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. It’s not only the lack of hair but also his pallor. Should I pretend that I didn’t notice or should I say something and address the illness?

The first thing to keep in mind is that everyone is different. As Chazal tell us, “Ein dei’oseihen shel bnei adam shavos.” No two people have the same mind. Therefore, there isn’t any one strict rule that dictates how everyone wants to be treated. If you have a relationship with someone and you have a sense of the way they want to be treated, then you should act accordingly. However, if you’re not sure for whatever reason, then compassionately ask the person—not directly, at first—how do you want me to address your health issues? Although you might feel that the topic is off limits, in most cases when people are dealing with a health issue that is visible and recognizable, one of the hardest things is the awkward treatment that they receive from people who are uncomfortable. It can be a great relief for them if you broach the subject sensitively and allow the person to tell you how they are comfortable with addressing it. How directly or indirectly, with what type of tone etc., is hard to say. The main thing is to do it compassionately. In other words, it shouldn’t be coming from a place of “This is really awkward; let me try to make it less awkward.” The point is to think, “Not only does this person have a health issue right now, but on top of it there’s the social awkwardness that they’re dealing with right now as well. Because whatever I’m feeling right now, they’re feeling with every interaction throughout the day. So I want to compassionately give them an opportunity to break through that awkwardness and allow them to have a normal rapport with me, when they are probably desperate for that type of interaction.”

To summarize: one should then err on the side of saying something, and to do so compassionately. If so, can you help us out here by giving us the right words to start off that conversation?

A lot of it depends on your own personality, but first I can tell you what not to do. Don’t express shock and don’t be dramatic. Also, don’t go to the other extreme and try to make light of it, unless you know this person very well, both of you have a sense of humor and both of you have a relationship where you joke around together about everything. I would suggest that without naming the issue—it doesn’t need to be named because it’s apparent—simply make a compassionate statement. I would start with “It’s good to see you again,” because presumably you wouldn’t have seen the person for a while, otherwise you wouldn’t be shocked. “Is there anything I can do for you right now?” So without naming the situation, you open the conversation.

Can “How are you?” be an opening?

Unfortunately, “How are you?” is meaningless in our culture. There’s an old saying, “What’s the definition of a boring person? Someone who when you ask them how they’re doing they give you an answer.” Also, questions that require an answer can be burdensome, unless it’s a question that’s really asking the person how you can be helpful to them.

Wouldn’t a question like “Is there anything I can do for you?” also be burdensome because of its open-endedness? Oftentimes when people are presented with an open-ended question like that they feel like “What do you want me to tell you?” Wouldn’t it be better to just offer specific help, such as babysitting or cooking or whatever you might know the person could specifically need?
That may be “coming on too strong,” but again, everything depends on the personality of both people.

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