What to say to a person who is sick

When I ran into Paul S. not knowing he had cancer, I barely recognized him and struggled with what to say. “What happened?” didn’t seem appropriate, although it was my initial reaction. I believe I said, “I barely recognized you,” which was true. I’ve been in many situations where I wasn’t sure what to say to someone who was ill or in distress; I wanted to be supportive but wasn’t sure what would be perceived as helpful.

I’ve been on the receiving end too; most recently when my father died and I remembering saying to myself many times, “I know he/she means well” when their words did not comfort me. I only once curtailed a conversation, when, within minutes after hearing about his death, a friend started telling me a long, involved story about a mutual friend’s father. I stopped her, said that I knew she meant to be supportive but I could not listen right now, and walked away.

People so often mean well but don’t know what to say. I asked Paul S. what he found helpful and he thought it was very dependent on personality. He describes himself as “a very logical, rational, controlled-emotions kind of person, so I hear comments such as you made as empathetic or at worst neutral. ‘Wow, Paul, you look like crap!’ ‘Darn right – I feel like crap.’ I actually like that.  But I have known other people who are really bothered by exactly that type of observation. They want sympathy and understanding, but not observation, if you get my distinction. A worried look, and an inquiry about how they are feeling, seems to be what they need. Which I value too. So I guess that’s the safe thing to do.”

When I told Paul about my experience with the friend who I walked away from, he understood my reaction and said, “What I did not want to hear is what you heard: somebody else’s story, not really relevant, and depressing. That’s indicative of a person who isn’t able to listen.” Of course, I was the one who was actually there and don’t think that the person couldn’t listen, but didn’t know what to say and felt moved to say something. The opportunities for mismatch between what one person says and the other person needs are abundant!

The difficulties are compounded by the distinction between advice and information, as Paul articulated, “The other thing I did not want to hear is advice about what I should do or not do – I’m getting the best care available, and I’m pretty competent to take care of myself. But then unsolicited advice is almost never welcome, right? What I did appreciate, however, was information. I didn’t include this in my story, but when I shared my situation with a friend at church, he reported that his mother had experienced something similar and had done extensive research on the web regarding Cisplatin and hearing loss. At my request, he contacted his mother who then e-mailed me several specific web links to good information sites. That interaction spurred me to do more research than I had done before.”

When I ran into Paul, my immediate thought was not to offer meals or rides, but sometimes this is the most helpful thing one can say. Paul agrees: ”The other thing that was nice, though I didn’t really need it, was offers of help, such as rides to chemo or offers to bring food or visit. I think it’s my personal style to not want or need much of that – I was able to drive the whole time, and didn’t want to put somebody to a lot of trouble; my taste buds and my appetite were shot, plus my partner was taking care of my food needs; and I just wanted to be left alone to vegetate in front of the TV when I felt bad, and not feel like I needed to keep up a conversation or be nice. But I’ve known other people – my (now former) partner is one – who in a similar situation would want almost around-the-clock company and help. So it’s good to ask and offer help, as long as you’re prepared to accept ‘thanks, but no thanks’.”

While Paul doesn’t think he is typical, it may be that no one really is in times of need. Which, of course, helps one to appreciate the people who do say or offer exactly what you need at that moment.

Paul also dealt with the common problem of how to keep people informed through email, which is a way of reaching out to people as well and a way of avoiding having the same conversation repeatedly. Paul recounted his experience: “On a closely related topic, something I did that had a surprising and wonderful result: When I entered the hospital, I did a broadcast e-mail to a ton of friends, advising them of the immediate situation and inviting them to opt in to periodic e-mail updates. More than 60 people opted in! Sending those broadcasts helped me feel connected, and I often got lots of replies. But the most surprising thing that kept happening was that they thanked me for keeping them posted. That blew me away. It still does a year later. True friends want to know, want to share the burden. Too many people feel ashamed or embarrassed or unimportant, and they miss this incredible opportunity to strengthen relationships by sharing their situations. Sure, there are folks who complain too much, so it can go the wrong way. My messages were factual and hopeful, even when I felt like crap, and that seemed to inspire a lot of people, which in turn made me feel that something good was coming out of this not-so-good time. I don’t know whether this fits into what you’re trying to do, but I would sure encourage people who find themselves in similar situations to reach out and stay in touch.”

There are websites for exactly this purpose, but email is certainly simple and, in this case, effective. There are also many people who blog their illness; one of the most moving that I read was NPR journalist Leroy Siever’s My Cancer.

Lisa Gualtieri is Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine and blogs at her self-titled site, Lisa Neal Gualtieri.

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