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Caregiving: Finding the Right Words

Caregiving: Finding the Right Words

Each day thousands of people become caregivers. For most, the new role is neither easy nor comfortable.

While it may sound clichéd, most find one of the biggest challenges to be effective communication between the person providing care and the one receiving it. In the final piece of this three-part series based on The Art of Conversation Through Serious Illness: Lessons for Caregivers, by Richard McQuellon, PhD, and Michael Cowan, PhD, we examine how caregivers can find the right words to use when communicating with someone in pain.


I don’t know what to say. It’s an important concern for caregivers accompanying someone in pain, coping with a diagnosis and being treated for a life-threating illness. Most people have little practice at this, and even experienced professionals are often at a loss for words. Words can seem hollow. Consequently, we feel inadequate, don’t know what to say, or when to say it, and may avoid the topic of what’s happening to our friend or loved one altogether because we simply can’t find good words.

Even if we find the right words, can we then make them words well spoken? As mentioned in early segments, effective conversation requires responding thoughtfully and truthfully. Many caregivers get stuck on “the right thing to say.” Recall from part two of the series, sometimes there is no need for words: an attentive presence and a caring silence are all that is required


Words can take strange twists during times of illness and pain, and not only for caregivers. Patients often search for the right time and the right words to speak the truth. Often, they are aware their honesty will lead to suffering. When someone trusts you to share his or her emotions, remember the importance of responding thoughtfully.

Not sure what to say? When offered honestly, these phrases or questions may comfort:

>> I am with you in this.

>> You can count on me.

>> Can you tell me how you’re holding up?

>> How can I be useful?

Stated with genuineness and empathy these phrases invite further conversations rather than closing off meaningful dialogue. A person who listens carefully and responds thoughtfully with simple, direct statements like these has the power to help lower emotional distress. Whatever the details of a life-threatening illness, and however great the differences in backgrounds, roles and responsibilities of those communicating about it, authentic conversation has the power to enhance how people cope. Talking honestly and listening well can illuminate and enrich the meaning of life for caregivers and people living in the sacred place of coping together.

Richard McQuellon, PhD, is professor in the Department of Medicine, Section of Hematology and Oncology and director of the Psychosocial Oncology and Cancer Patient Support Programs at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He received a BS in psychology from the University of Washington, a PhD in counseling psychology from Michigan State University and has over 20 years of clinical experience working with cancer patients and their families.His clinical work involves survivorship planning from diagnosis though end of life and the psychosocial care of patients undergoing extreme cancer treatments, including stem cell transplantation. He has served on editorial boards and published over 125 abstracts, journal articles and textbook chapters. Dr. McQuellon is currently on the editorial board of the Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

Michael Cowan, PhD, is a psychologist and theologian at Loyola University New Orleans, where he has been a faculty member and administrator since 1990. He has been involved in interfaith and interracial community organizing in New Orleans throughout that period. Following Hurricane Katrina, he founded Common Good, a network of civil society organizations working with business and government leaders in the rebuilding of New Orleans.

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways is the first, only and ultimate pain magazine. First published in spring 2008, PainPathways is the culmination of the vision of Richard L. Rauck, MD, to provide a shared resource for people living with and caring for others in pain. This quarterly resource not only provides in-depth information on current treatments, therapies and research studies but also connects people who live with pain, both personally and professionally.

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