We Say “I Can’t Imagine,” But Can’t We?

We Say "I Cant Imagine," But Cant We?

It’s been almost a year since I shared a post on what not to say to someone going through cancer treatment. In hindsight, the post should have been titled “things that are hard to hear during cancer treatment.” It wasn’t my intention to tell people what to say (or not say), but I wanted to share the things that were hard to hear with the hope of helping someone else in their grief. I’m a year and-a-half into my daughter’s Leukemia treatment. And a lot less broken than I was those first few months. So today, I want to talk about one of the most commonly used expressions people say after a cancer diagnosis, and why we should stop using it. 

We Say “I Can’t Imagine,” But Can’t We?

When you’re going through trauma, almost everyone tells you they can’t imagine what you’re going through. It’s said to express sympathy. One could justify continuing to say this because there’s good intention behind it, but it’s generally not helpful. Well intentioned? Kind? Of course. We know everyone means well, but what we hear is “what you’re going through is so horrible that I cannot and do not want to imagine it.” I understand it’s so terrible that you don’t want to imagine it, but you can. Just try. I have to believe that as human beings, we are empathetic enough to be able to imagine how hard it must be. 

Just try. Try to imagine it. Imagination is a bridge of empathy.

– Glennon Doyle 

I can’t speak for all parents in my position, but I have spoken to dozens and dozens of mothers and women dealing with grief, and “I can’t imagine” is not usually helpful. Those words can make us feel alone in our pain. The first few months after diagnosis, every time I heard these words, it really hurt. These days, I can brush it off. But I’d like to help you better support someone going through something difficult and help someone best support you should you need it someday.  

So why do we keep saying it?

I have no idea why we keep using a commonly-used, well intentioned phrase that isn’t actually helpful. But the good news is that it’s actually a really simple fix. Just change one word! 

 Try “I can imagine” or “I can only imagine”

Unlike “I can’t imagine” telling someone you can imagine what they’re going through shows empathy. You’re acknowledging that you don’t know how hard it is, but that you can imagine it. You don’t need to know how they feel to empathize.  

I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m here for you. 

I hate this for you. 

I am so sorry you’re going through this. 

Every few weeks, I hear from a parent in the early stages of a childhood cancer diagnosis. I almost always tell them that even though I’ve been through the same thing, I don’t know exactly how they feel. The reality is that we all process things differently. So I know how hard it was for me, but I don’t know how it feels for them. I am in a unique situation that I understand the pain of going through it, but also understand the desperation to want to make it better for someone who is going through it.

We can also do better than “I don’t know how you do it” and “you’re so strong” because while those are also well-intentioned, they’re also not very helpful. We do it because we have to. What are our options? When these things are said to someone who is going trauma, we hear “better you than me” which we know isn’t what is being said, but that’s how it feels. 

If you’ve said any of these things to someone (or to me) that is ok! It was said with love, kindness, and empathy. We all know that. I’m sharing this because if just one person can better support someone going through a hard time, it will be worth it. Let’s do better. 

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    1. Hi Stephanie,

      I’ll do my best. Wouldn’t want to share anyone’s notes, but will say just hearing things like I’m sorry, thinking of you, or I can imagine feels so big. It’s always so nice when someone says they’ve been inspired by Margot and when instead of telling me I’m strong, they notice how much I love her. Most days, I don’t feel very strong. It’s love that gets me through. But really, I am always touched when anyone says anything kind and I know they mean well.

      Cancer treatment is long. Leukemia treatment is REALLY long (2+ years). That’s a long time to continue to show up, but just being there, checking in or even saying hello or a message on a clinic day (if you know when that is) is huge.

      I’ll share this one story because it was so meaningful. One of my best friends drove to my house to sit with me on my patio. She put this out there first thing and just said something like: so do you want to talk about treatment or how you’re doing, or have a conversation about something else? It felt so big to know she was here to listen, but to also know I didn’t have to talk about treatment. I opted for a normal conversation and it was just what I needed.

      Not sure how helpful this is. I also wrote a post on how to help someone after diagnosis.

  • Yes this! I’ve both been the one needing and the one supporting. I love (and now use) “what do you want to talk about” all the time. Also it depends on your relationship and the kind of support you are read & willing to give but I have said “I know you need to “go there” sometimes and when you want to I will do it with you.” People try to stay cheery and upbeat for others – but the worst case scenarios are still there – stuffed down deep – I think it helps someone to know you will be there in the hour of darkest thoughts not just the chipper times. Saying I’m “here for you” can be too general. It’s hard but you need to get specific.

    Hope that helps. Danielle I think all your posts on this topic are so thoughtful.

    1. Oh wow, that’s such a kind and empathetic thing to say. It reminds me of giving permission in a way. Saying I’m here to talk about anything. But sometimes, it’s just nice when someone shows up and says hi, at least with something long-term. I don’t want to talk about treatment all the time, and at this point, it’s just so nice to have a normal conversation with a friend.

      This definitely helps. Thank you!

  • I have to disagree with your interpretation of “I can’t imagine.” I’ve never thought of it as that people don’t want to imagine it for themselves but more that they can’t possibly understand because they don’t have this same experience. As the mom of a child with a medically complex genetic disorder, I actually prefer it to “I can imagine” because they can’t understand what I go through day in and day out. They can’t understand the physical and emotional toll that a normal day takes out of me. They can’t understand what it’s like to spend a full day at the hospital because you have THAT many doctors to see. They can’t understand the fear I live with every day wondering if today might be the day that I lose my child. They can’t imagine. And even if they think they could imagine what it’s like, they truly can’t. Because before this became my life, I couldn’t imagine it either. Just like I can’t even begin to understand all of the things that go along with being a cancer mom. If someone told me they can imagine how I feel or what I’m going through, personally, I’d think they’re minimizing my actual experience with their imaginative version of what they think I’m going through.

    1. I really respect this. Thank you. You’re right, they can’t understand it. No one gets it unless they’re in it. I do think they CAN imagine it what it might be like and empathize in that way, but understand where you’re coming from. It helps to hear another perspective.

  • Something I say often to people going through hard things is, “how are you today?” Or “how are you doing in this moment?” Because I feel like a general “how are you” is just too overwhelming of a question and kind of dismissive when someone is clearly not doing great. But maybe in that moment something positive just happened that they want to talk about, or maybe it’s a really bad day they want to vent about. But I’m curious if this is actually helpful when I say it to my friends – is it something you would’ve wanted someone to say to you, or is it unhelpful in ways I’m not thinking of?

    1. This is one of the kindest things to ask! The “today” is huge and you are so right that a general “how are you?” is an impossible question at the beginning. I’m ok with it now because things are mostly good. I will say that in the beginning, it was so hard because Margot had a really awful first month, but once things normalized, it felt better.

      I remember asking someone how they were after their mom died and he looked at me and said “my mom died. I’m not good” and in that moment, I knew it just wasn’t the question to ask when you know things are not good. But when the dust settles a bit, to say how are you TODAY – YES. That is it.

      So yes, very helpful!