Reflections on Blame and Shame: Part 2

“People can’t give up the idea that the ill person is responsible for the disease.”
Marla Morris
, Teaching through the Ill Body

Lydia uses tissue after tissue in my office as she tries to understand how the cancer happened. She is exhausted from lack of sleep, shock, and worry. Her usually bright brown eyes are full of anguish and barely visible in a face swollen from crying. She wants to know what she did wrong, why she is being punished, what hidden badness might have done the damage.

She read online that all cancer is the result of hidden anger. She’s feeling angry about her diagnosis and now is fearful the anger will make it worse. Does sugar cause cancer and baking soda cure it? Do people blame her for eating sugar?

An acquaintance who practices energy healing told her that it has something to do with abuse from her father. She wracks her brain trying to come up with what that might be but there’s nothing. She had a good relationship with her father, not perfect, but hardly abusive.

Why do people – often the “not ill” – project and perpetuate these rationales for why other people are ill?

You’ve likely found yourself trying to help an ill friend by making such off-the-cuff statements. But let’s probe a bit more deeply into why we make these claims, why they’re actually more harmful than helpful, and what we can do instead.

After years of dealing with my own cancer recovery and working with so many others in their healing journey, here’s what I’ve been thinking:

Like blaming the rape victim for causing the assault with her short skirt or the walk alone in a dark parking lot, or the drink at a bar, people not undergoing illness casually speculate on what the ill person did “wrong” in an effort (conscious or not) to identify that they are “not like me“ and therefore must have brought the misfortune on themselves.

It’s so hard to know how to respond when faced with the suffering or misfortune of a friend or loved one. Frequently, even well intentioned people try to identify what mistakes the ill person made: wrong diet, expressed too much anger or held in their anger, ate non-organic food or had a sweet tooth, took birth control pills, enjoyed red wine, or any other of a hundred lifestyle choices. Maybe, if they can point out something that the ill person did that they did not, they can relax in their own safety.

What makes well-meaning people say these things?

Sometimes it seems as if we are praised and appreciated if we appear healthy, physically strong and happy, slim, youthful and energetic. We are blamed, disparaged, or ignored if we are not.

You want to know the cause of cancer. You want to feel in control of your life and health. But the answers are not always apparent or available. Feelings of sadness, anger, fear and bewilderment get triggered when you hear of a terrible incident or illness. This notion that things happen outside your control and bad things can happen to anyone, even the innocent, can be terrifying. The mind searches for ways to explain the misfortune that don’t include it easily happening to you.

If you can come up with a psychological theory, you “gain immunity” (to use a term from the show Survivor) from feeling how vulnerable your own body is, thereby distancing yourself emotionally from the painful knowledge of its inevitable demise.

But blaming the ill person, however subtly, can be toxic to her recovery. It adds to shame and self blame. Here’s how to respond more sensitively:

1. Respond with love and empathy to her fear and uncertainty. Be willing to listen and ask questions about how she feels and what she needs. One wise yogi friend told me he’s had many people in his family be diagnosed. He asks them, “Do you want me to talk, listen, hold you while you cry, or cry myself? I can do all of those.”

2. Tell her it’s not her fault.

3. Be honest with yourself about how much you can help. Don’t offer meals, visits, or support that you can’t follow though.

If you are a caregiver, pace yourself, and seek emotional support with others so that your loved one with cancer isn’t regularly taking care of you emotionally.

4. Be willing to hear about his or her fear and pain. Once s/he gets that part out, s/he will also want to talk about the hope and the humor in life as well.

5. Do not second guess or disparage medical choices (“I would never in a million years have done chemotherapy!” You never know until you are in it.) Especially do not criticize treatment choices already made.

6. Don’t give lectures on Big Pharm or say that there are cancer cures out there being hidden. If you genuinely have some important information based on science to share, wait to be approached and asked.

And most importantly, be a friend. Remember your loved one is more than her cancer. Be ok with not being perfect yourself and not having the answers. Don’t let fear or anxiety, desire to “fix it” or hope of saying just the right thing keep you from sharing love and connection.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on Blame and Shame: Part 2”

  1. This post is great and so right on. I love the comment from the yogi. A friend asked me how to interact with a cancer patient. She genuinely wanted some guidance. I just forwarded this blog post to her.

    At the *very beginning* of my cancer journey—in the hospital right after my mastectomy—a nurse asked me if I was a Christian and then went on to tell me “everything happens for a reason.” A nurse! As it’s now been a full four years since, one can see how these well meaning(?) comments stay with a person.

  2. Hi Julie – Yes, when we are in a vulnerable state words really do matter. I like the yogi’s comment too-so attuned…


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