Lost for words


Michael, the BSW student who is with us twice a week, had this to say recently about an experience he had on intake:

One day, while working behind the Food Hamper program’s intake counter, I met an older woman who I may never meet again. However, a mark was left and a burning memory remains.

Late in the afternoon, during an average, uneventful day, an ordinary looking, older woman came to the front asking for food assistance. I asked her name, entered it into our computer system, and up popped her profile. It was similar to all of our other program participants’ profiles except for one glaringly red difference. Up in the corner were the large red words, CANCER. Before I could confirm this with her she told me, “I have lung cancer.” Here I was with someone who not only required emergency food assistance but the food provided by the program was going towards supporting her recovery or, at the least, to help her cope with her poor health. This woman had to have been under an incredible amount of stress; emotional and mental stress in requiring the program’s help and physical stress due to her health. After she left some thoughts continued to stick in my mind.

What is the normal or appropriate thing to say to a stranger who has freely shared something incredibly personal with you? When the woman declared she had lung cancer I honestly did not know what to say. I felt the need to warmly acknowledge this comment but was rendered speechless. Phrases like, “I’m sorry to hear that,” crossed my mind but none of them made enough sense or carried enough honesty to equal her comment to me. I tried to remain as open as possible to her if she wanted to continue discussing her personal life but that was all I could provide. Some people may be comfortable sharing this type of information but based on the fact that cancer has touched my family and so many others, this word is rarely in a positive sentence or discussion.

Cancer and food insecurity are two highly stressful life situations. Many people would find it stressful coping with just one. Loss of employment, death in the family, poor health resulting in lost income, are a few of the many reasons why community members find themselves in a food related crisis and come to the Food Hamper for some extra assistance to help them get through their trying circumstances.

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