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Two years ago, my father died from a sudden, complicated lung condition. And a few months later I was facing my own serious diagnosis. As both a caregiver and patient, I've heard a lot of well-intentioned advice, hope-filled statements and unfortunate reactions. At some point, most of us know a friend or loved one coping with a debilitating illness, and it's hard to know what to say.

It seems only natural that we root for the heroic comeback. In the news and in movies, we champion the "keep calm and carry on" attitude, the fighter who is undaunted by fear, doubt or misery. The strength of the human spirit is undeniably beautiful. But so is our vulnerability. And without it, there is no heroism.

When my dad was in his final months, friends visited him in the long-term care facility and said things like, "I have faith it will all turn out fine," or "I know you'll be back on your feet in no time." I watched one woman grip his hand and remind him to keep up the positive attitude he was famous for, as though it might be a magic potion to avoid death. What I noticed was that these comments didn't actually comfort him. They left him alone in his grief.

When I was wrestling with my own health issues, a friend said, "You can't be scared. You have faith, don't you?" I was also treated to stories of people who had died horrible deaths from my disease. I'm not sure how that was meant to help. Only those who had dealt with their own issues around illness and death were the ones who were able to truly be there for me. They'd say, "How are you doing with all this?" and then listen without trying to fix me, minimize my concerns or tell me their story. They gave me space to be confident or unsure -- which could change on a given day or even within the hour.

A friend or loved one may, or may not, ultimately recover. But there's more to life than surviving. When we can embrace the whole person -- not just the happy, positive person -- in that moment we've helped both of us truly live. And that's heroic.


With a Perspective, I'm Lynn Coye.

Lynn Coye is a wife, stepmother and communications professional in San Jose.