What Do I Say When Someone Is on Fire? The Social Awkwardness

March 13, 2024 ◊ By Elisa Everts ◊

What Do I Say When Someone Is on Fire? The Social Awkwardness

Fear of Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome​

I think most of us are afraid of putting our foot in our mouth when talking to someone facing cancer or loss. There might be a narrow band of things that are ok to say in these very grave, very dicey situations. There is certainly a broad swath of things you really should not say (if you don't want the other person to waste precious emotional energy trying not to punch you in the throat). I know that sounds really extreme, but in fact people have really extreme reactions to a lot of the things that people are in the habit of thoughtlessly saying to a person in dire straits.

In the face of social awkwardness, our brains freeze and we reach for prefabricated phrases, something we have heard before in the same context that sounded "good" and seems liked it might serve in the current situation. The top five most annoying and hurtful comments from the tons of books and articles I have read seem to be, "Don't cry; Everything happens for a reason; At least it's not X; I know exactly how you feel; and She's in a better place..." If you have not experienced extreme grief, these utterances might sound harmless to you, but if you have, they may feel like a punch in the gut.


In Erving Goffman’s brilliant 1963 book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, he calls this experience enfeeblement. So apt. You freak out in the face of scary unknown experiences. When people encounter someone with a missing limb for the first time, for instance, they sometimes become so uncomfortable they may run away, say something wildly inappropriate, or even react with blatant, cruel rejection. I have read that even monkeys freak out in the presence of another monkey with a missing limb. This of course, is just an example of social differences that have a confusing psychological impact on people (and apparently monkeys).
This emotional resistance seems to be preprogramed in our psyches to trigger alarm when we feel that something is not right. But just because an impulse is natural does not mean it is insurmountable nor does it let us off the hook as mature friends from reaching beyond the easy to stretch ourselves and be more human and vulnerable to pain as an act of solidarity with the person we are talking to.

Being Afraid and Doing It Anyway​

Courage, of course, doesn't mean not being afraid. It means being afraid and doing it anyway. (Lots of famous people have said that in various ways from Aristotle to Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela. Great truths will be articulated anew and again by wise people.) Courage means being afraid and doing the scary thing anyway.
I've never been able to find the original source of this idea, but I think it's profound: there are only really two motives for human behavior: Love and Fear. You have to constantly choose one or the other. When your loved one faces a terminal diagnosis, she may need more courage than she has ever needed before. If you love her, you will also reach inside and find courage to walk into the fire and stand with her. Love acknowledges the fear and acts anyway.

Finding Fortitude to Face the Uncomfortable​

When we act out of love, we reach inside and find some fortitude so that we might enter into that uncomfortable place of pain and uncertainty and think of something authentic to say that comes from our own hearts and brains and does not sound like a secondhand sentiment we picked up at a flea market.

Platitudes are like re-gifting! Using a platitude is like giving someone a candle or a fruitcake for Christmas that has been passed around four times already (and hopefully not forgetting to take the last recipient’s name off the tag!)
Now, let me acknowledge again that platitudes come from a place of helplessness. You want to help but sometimes you can't help yourself from saying dumb things. I am asking you to please try. Platitudes feel dismissive. Platitudes feel like abandonment.

What to Do When Someone Is on Fire​

When my maternal grandfather was a child, he caught on fire on a family camping trip. His back is covered with burn scars because for a minute no one was brave enough to step in and put the fire out- put him out. When he grew up, he was an alcoholic his whole adult life. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to remember that moment of being a child on fire and no one stepping in to save him. I wasn’t there. I have no idea what the situation was. I am not passing judgment. I only imagine a child on fire, not being saved.
And I imagine at some level this is what our loved one with cancer or facing catastrophic loss feels like inside when we stand outside, afraid to enter into their pain, afraid to acknowledge that they are on fire or to do whatever we can to help.

When You Can't Think of Anything Nice to Say​

I suppose the very most important truth to remember in such situations is that what you say is unlikely to bring the most healing. Just walking into the pain and offering your quiet, nonjudgmental presence is the best thing you can do. Our loving silence, once the pain has been acknowledged, is sometimes far more healing than anything we could say.
Gentle words and loving, listening silence are another way we can help each other manage hope.

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About the author

Dr. Elisa Everts is the founder of Evertree Hope Management and is a dynamic public speaker, author and trainer. Dr Everts is passionate about helping cancer patients and bereaved people in their quest to survive and live a full life during and after cancer and grief. She has the personal experience of surviving Stage IV cancer and the loss of many loved ones. She understands the challenges inherent in these experiences and the importance of cultivating hope through the stories we tell others, and even more importantly, to ourselves.

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2 thoughts on “What Do I Say When Someone Is on Fire? The Social Awkwardness”

  1. Elisa, I get sick and tired of seeing this comment on social in response to a loss or cancer diagnosis, “I’m so sorry.”

    Rather, your words are so needed, “Our loving silence, once the pain has been acknowledged, is sometimes far more healing than anything we could say.”

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Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

I speak to medical professionals and patients, helping them provide hope when there seems to be none. If you or your organization need someone to help process the difficult topics of cancer and grief, let's set up a complimentary call, 703-656-6691, ee@elisaeverts.com.

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