I got a call today from a friend. She'd just received some bad news about a workmate who had been diagnosed with a serious illness. She was very upset and not only about the news but about her reaction to it. She'd spent the rest of the day avoiding the person, simply because she didn't know what to say and was scared she'd say the wrong thing.
It's a situation most of us will face at some time or another. When I encountered it a while back, I found myself blurting out my immediate thoughts, no censoring at all. Where is that frontal lobe when you need it? I think I uttered something along the line of 'Oh, hell'. Helpful? Probably not. My friend and I agreed my statement had a great deal of honesty though.
Truthfully, there's no right or wrong response.
My friend wanted to be supportive yet the situation had made her anxious. We talked about how a fear of saying the wrong thing and a subsequent avoidance of the situation could have the direct opposite effect. At this time, where a diagnosis is new, it's not about what you say but about how you listen. Being diagnosed with a serious health condition can elicit a wide range of emotions. Life is disrupted, current and future plans may have to change. Giving someone the opportunity to talk about their fears and concerns and not discounting them with premature reassurance that things will be alright, letting them vent their emotional distress is probably the most useful thing we can do intially.