I posted this a few years ago, but, in light of an article I saw in the Wall Street Journal, I needed to update it.
'A' and 'B' refer to the people having the conversation.
1. Conversation with a person recently diagnosed with Breast Cancer:
A. "I know what you are going through, my sister in law had the same thing."
B. "Thank you for your concern. And how is your sister in law?"
A. "Oh, she died within a year of her diagnosis."
2. At a Shiva House:
A. "Yes, (his mother) was a tremendous ba'alas bitachon. I once asked her how she dealt with the horrors she saw during the war. She answered that she had no questions: If Hashem did it, there is a reason, and we all have to love and trust the Ribono Shel Olam."
B. "You know, I've met people like that, and I think that the unsophisticated people, the uneducated, klein shtettlsheh people, they just accepted everything unquestioningly. The more educated people are the ones who threw away their bitachon."
(Oh. I used to think of her as a rock solid ba'alas bitachon. I guess she was really just a glassy-eyed cow.)
3. At another Shiva House:
A. "I don't know how I can take this...it's so hard to lose a father...."
B. "It's much harder when you lose your mother."
(I have to admit, these were not the actual words, but I was afraid you wouldn't believe me if I quoted her verbatim. What she actually said was "Wait until you lose your mother." I'm not making this up.)
4. At another Shiva House:
(background: A was sitting for his mother. When his father had passed away some years before, the chevra kadisha messed up, perhaps it was the fault of the local funeral chapel, or the chevra kadisha that took the Aron from the airplane in Israel, and they ended up eulogizing what turned out to be a nun's coffin in his Rebbe's Beis Medrash, as they realized when they opened the Aron for burial on Har Hazeisim.)
B. "Well, at least they didn't misplace her Aron...."
(Thank you, my friend, for re-opening an old wound.)
5. At a Shiva where, nebach, parents were sitting for their teenaged daughter.
A. At a time like this, maybe we can only say that (the daughter) was a gilgul of a holy neshama that came to this word to work out unfinished business, and when her neshama achieved its tafkid, she was taken back to Olam Haba.
B. I don't know about that. Reb Saadia Gaon says there's no such thing as Gilgulim, and the whole idea of Gilgulim was just made up because people couldn't deal with situations just like this.
(B, by the way, is a highly regarded talmid chacham, an author of many articles and sefarim, but a Yekke/Litvak through and through, although he's a big baki in Reb Tzadok.)
I was directed to the following article in the Wall Street Journal.
Reprinted with the author's kind permission.
For a Sick Friend: First, Do No Harm
Conversing with the ill can be awkward, but keeping a few simple commandments makes a huge difference
By Letty Cottin Pogrebin
'A closed mouth gathers no feet." It's a charming axiom, but silence isn't always an option when we're dealing with a friend who's sick or in despair. The natural human reaction is to feel awkward and upset in the face of illness, but unless we control those feelings and come up with an appropriate response, there's a good chance that we'll blurt out some cringe-worthy cliché, craven remark or blunt question that, in retrospect, we'll regret.
We're all nervous around illness and mortality, but whatever pops into our heads should not necessarily plop out of our mouths. Yet, in my own experience as a breast-cancer patient, and for many of the people I have interviewed, friends do make hurtful remarks. Marion Fontana, who was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years after her husband, a New York City firefighter, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center, was told that she must have really bad karma to attract so much bad luck. In another case, upon hearing a man's leukemia diagnosis, his friend shrieked, "Wow! A girl in my office just died of that!"Later, when Pete told him how demoralizing his remark had been, Fred's excuse was, "I was nervous. I just said what popped into my head."
Finally, here is a video from Youtube. It's humorous, but, unfortunately, not unrealistic.
And another one, on Bikkur Cholim.