I don’t think it was a coincidence that her crying occurred when no family was in the room with her. On one hand, being on her own might have made her vulnerable to a breakdown; but on the other hand, maybe she chose the time without family because she knew they would not allow it. It wasn’t that her family was uncaring. They were warriors themselves and had gathered around and bolstered Jeannie through each hospitalization. I had heard her mother encourage her by saying, “You can’t give up.” The breakdown was a glimpse into what Jeannie knew deep down; it wasn’t about giving up. But her opponent, cervical cancer, was an unbeatable foe. By urging her not to give up, Jeannie’s mother put the responsibility on Jeannie. Was it giving up when she could not fight anymore? Her fight was doomed to failure and she knew it, even though she hated knowing it. Was that giving up? Was that the source of her anguish?

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All of this swirled through my mind as I tried to figure out what I could do to help Jeannie. I didn’t think continuing the warrior-princess pretense was helpful; but tearing it down was not helpful either. Our Western society places a high value on doing something. But recently I heard a twist on an old adage that applied with Jeannie. The saying is, “Don’t just stand there, do something,” but the twist was to change the wording around to, “Don’t do something, just stand there.” I pulled up a chair so I was close to Jeannie. I sensed that she did not want me to hug her. Instead, I put a hand on hers and sat quietly. I said nothing. I did nothing. Part of me struggled with this minimalist approach because it seemed like I should have been doing something. But doing something would have been more for me than for Jeannie. It was my turn to be the warrior princess, to be strong enough to do nothing.

Doing nothing gave Jeannie the chance to do what she needed to do. It allowed Jeannie to cry, and it allowed her to regroup. It allowed her to say the things she hadn’t yet been able to say. In this case, my doing nothing was something. It allowed her to be strong enough to be weak. We sat together for a long time, long enough for her to cry and long enough for her to stop crying. Jeannie was as much a warrior princess as she had ever been. ONA

Ann Brady is the symptom management care coordinator at the Cancer Center, Huntington Hospital, Pasadena, California.

Join the conversation


  • When a patient cries, do you feel you need to do something? What are you comfortable doing in that situation?

  • How do you feel when a patient or family insists that the patient cannot ‘give up’? What do you say to them in that instance?