What to Say When Someone Is Sick With a Serious Health Condition (and Topics to Avoid)
It's difficult to know what to say when someone you care about is suffering. Here's a good list of conversation starters, and the topics to avoid.
When loved ones are sick, you’re desperate to find ways to comfort them. Unfortunately, your well-meaning attempts can sometimes fall flat. To help you navigate these sensitive situations, we asked Fran Walfish, PhD, a relationship psychotherapist, author, and consultant on CBS’ “The Doctors” to give us some pointers. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you truly comfort the sick people in your life.
The biggest mistake people make is being vague, so DON’T ask “How can I help?” Walfish says. Patients don’t want the burden put on them to come up with something you can do so if you really want to be useful, identify something that needs doing and offer to do that. Think cooking dinner, cleaning, babysitting children, driving them to appointments, or picking up groceries. If you’re still tempted to be general this powerful story will convince you to stop saying “Let me know if you need anything.”
Here’s what to say—and not say
DO say, “Do you want me to come over while you wait for test results?” Having someone available when they get emotionally charged news can be invaluable, Walfish says.
DO say, “I’m bringing dinner Thursday. Do you want lasagna or chicken?” Giving them a choice allows them to state a preference without overwhelming them. Be sure to ask about allergies and how many people will be eating. Consider bringing a meal that can be easily frozen and reheated.
DO say, “I have Monday free if you need me to run some errands or take you somewhere.” Letting them know your schedule isn’t being picky, it’s a kindness. This way they won’t feel as if they’re imposing, she says. Is it a mental illness? Try these 12 tips to help someone with depression.
DON’T say, “You look great.” Very sick people are aware that their hair is falling out, their skin is covered with sores, or they’ve become skeletal. Avoid commenting on appearances totally or stick to things that feel more genuine, Walfish says. For example, “Your eyes are sparkling” or “I can see your determination.”
DO say, “Can I take your kids for a play date? My kids would love to have friends over.” When a parent is sick, their children often suffer as well. Keeping them as normal as possible will also help their parent feel better by letting them know their little ones are being cared for, she says. For more ideas of what not to do with kids, check out 45 of the worst tips parents ever got.
DO say, “No response necessary.” Patients, especially those with long-term illnesses, can get overwhelmed with the burden of keeping everyone informed and feeling appreciated. Take this burden off of them by letting them know you don’t expect or need a reply if they’re not feeling up to it. When you drop off a gift or meal, tell them that no thank-you card is necessary. (And consider letting them keep the Tupperware too!)
DO say, “I don’t know what to say, but I care about you and I’d like to listen.” It’s totally fine to admit that you love them but you don’t know what to do, Walfish says. Most people are thrown for a loop by a serious or chronic health condition. This also gives them an opening to talk if they like.
DO say, “I need to go now.” Most sick people cannot handle long visits so don’t overstay your welcome. Try visiting for 20 minutes, even less if the patient is tired or in pain. And while you’re there, wash a few dishes, clean the room, and take out the trash when you leave. Do you know the two words to never say to a friend going through a crisis?
DO say, “Would you like to hear the latest updates on our friends?” When you don’t know what to say, a change of topic goes a long way—here are 11 more golden rules of good conversation. Patients are often sick of talking about their illness and will be excited to hear how common friends and family are doing. You can also bring up more general news—almost everyone has an opinion about the senator’s indiscretion, the underdog in the playoffs, or the latest celebrity gossip.
DO say, “Do you just need to vent? I’m all ears!” And then, listen. Listening attentively can be the best gift you can give a person, Walfish says.
DO say, “I really admire how you are handling this. I know it’s difficult.” A little sympathy and a compliment are almost always welcome.
DO say, “It’s okay not to be the perfect sick person.” Patients can feel a lot of pressure to “be strong” “stay positive” or “fight hard”, even when they’re feeling sad and weak. Let your loved one know that however they are feeling is acceptable and you don’t expect them to be the poster child for cancer, Walfish explains. Get to know what you should say to a coworker who has cancer.
DO say, “I love you.” When all else fails, simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain. It doesn’t need to be fancy. It just needs to be sincere.
If the sick person is you, be sure to check out this guide: How to Survive a Health Crisis or Chronic Illness.