The problem with the Golden Rule, I've long thought, is that not everyone wants to be treated the way I want to be treated. It's hard enough to put yourself in another person's shoes when they're traveling a path you've never walked. It's even harder to figure out what they might consider helpful.
For my part, it's okay not to know what to say to me. I've been on that path, the one where people around me are suffering in ways unknown to me, and I have no idea what to say. Just saying, "I'm sorry you and your mom are going through this," is enough. With most people, that's about as much as I want. With most people, I'm ready to move on to ordinary topics, ordinary tasks. You're not being insensitive if you ignore the elephant in the room after its presence has been acknowledged.
The hardest part about going back to work after Mom's stroke was answering the same questions over and over. I was so grateful when one colleague simply said, "I'm sorry," and left it at that for a couple of days. After giving me that bit of breathing space, she told me she didn't know what I preferred, but she figured I might not want to hear, "How's your mom?" every day. She was right. And I appreciated that she said she didn't really know how I wanted to be treated.
But I've also appreciated hearing just the right words from people who have walked this path, or one very like. They were hard words, words other people might think I wouldn't want to hear. One person wrote a note wishing me and my mom a way out of this misery. Misery. Such a strong word, but exactly the right word. Reading it, I felt a little less alone, for the first time in many days.
Today someone told me not to feel guilty if I find myself resenting being on this path. Resentment. I've been reading a lot of books on stroke, and on caregiving. I kept looking out for that word, resentment, in the latter. No one seemed willing to say it, to acknowledge it. Many other feelings that family members might feel were addressed, but not that one. Was I the only person selfish enough to think, "Dammit Mom! How could you do this to me?" even as I watched her suffering? Hearing another person say that one hard word also made me feel a little less alone.