Helpful things to say to someone who’s sick

It’s easy for those with health problems to complain about what we don’t want to hear others say to us, but I thought it might be helpful to let others know what we wish they would say to us.

“You look so good, but how are you really feeling?”

It’s hard for us to respond to comments like, “You look so good” (or the always dreaded, “But you don’t look sick”) because we know that you’re just trying to be nice. If we respond truthfully with, “Thanks, but I feel awful,” you might be embarrassed or think we’re being ungrateful. It would be such a relief to be asked a question that goes to the heart of the matter: “How are you really feeling?”

“I’m going to the grocery store, can I pick anything up for you?”

This is a helpful question, as opposed to, “Call me if there’s anything I can do.” We’re unlikely to respond to the latter. It’s too open-ended an offer, meaning we won’t call and say, “Can you go to the grocery store and get me some dish soap?” We don’t want to make you go somewhere that you aren’t otherwise going. But if you let us know that you’re already going to the store, that’s a different matter entirely!

In fact, the more specific your offer of help, the better. For example, we’d love to hear an offer to do one of those life tasks that back up for us because we’re not well enough to get to it: take our car for an oil change (we’ll pay for it!); weed in our garden for a bit; do a load of laundry; even clean our refrigerator.

“It must be hard to be sick and in pain all the time,” or “Not being able to work must be so frustrating,” or “I imagine it’s a daily grind to have to pace yourself so carefully.”

These comments are examples of “active listening,” a child raising technique I learned when my two kids were young. I wasn’t always as skillful at it as I wanted to be, but the idea is to let your kids know you’ve really heard their concerns by feeding back to them, in your own words, what they’ve said.

For example, if your daughter is afraid of the dark, instead of trying to talk her out of how she’s feeling by saying, “There’s no reason to be afraid of the dark,” or “You’re too old to be afraid of the dark,” you feed back her feelings to her by saying, “The dark is scary to you.” When you actively listen in this way, children feel heard and validated. This makes it easier for them to overcome a fear because they know you’re taking their concern seriously and that you’re trying to understand it from their point of view. We who are chronically ill want to feel heard and validated. We want to know that you understand how we feel. In fact, everybody—sick or not—wants to know that others understand them!

To “active listen,” put yourself in another’s shoes and think about how you’d feel if you were in his or her circumstances. Then feed those feelings back by saying, for example, “You must feel sad and disappointed that you can’t go to the party.” I hope all of you have experienced the relief that comes from feeling deeply listened to.

“How are you holding up? Do we need to stop visiting so you can rest?”

What a blessing it would be to hear a visitor offer this “prompt.” I’ve lost count of the number of times my body was telling me to lie down, but I didn’t excuse myself. Even if we’re wilting away or are in bad pain, most of us are unlikely to bring it up ourselves because we don’t want to let you down. But if we know you’re aware of and sensitive to our limitations, we’ll respond honestly.

“I miss going out to lunch together,” or “I miss going to the movies with you,” or “I miss going to the mall together.”

We want to hear a heartfelt expression of the way you feel about how things have changed for us. It lets us know that you value our relationship.

“Don’t feel bad if you have to cancel our plans at the last minute. I’ll understand.”

What a relief this would be to hear! I used to force myself to keep commitments even if I was too sick to leave the house. Invariably, it led to a bad “crash.” I’m much better now about cancelling plans if I have to, but I still feel bad about it unless those plans were made with one of my “it’s okay to cancel” friends. I treasure them.

“Would you like to hear about this crazy adventure I had yesterday?”

You bet I would! Some friends don’t want to tell me about what they’re up to, especially if it’s something exciting. They think that talking about their lives will make me feel bad since I’m so limited in what I can do. But hearing about another’s adventure makes me feel connected to the world and adds real-life adventure to what I often just have to get off the TV.

“I hope you’re as well as possible.”

To those of us living day-to-day with health challenges, this comment is so spot-on that many of us just use the initials AWAP when communicating with each other, as in, “I hope you’re AWAP.” Reflecting on this, wouldn’t it be a compassionate comment to make to anyone? Everybody has his or her share of stresses and sorrows—in sickness and in health. And so, my wish for everyone reading this piece is that you’re AWAP.

Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their CaregiversHer forthcoming book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.

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  • Ann Silberman

    Good article. I have Stage IV breast cancer so I have heard it all. I also encourage people to refrain from asking any question that could be interpreted by the sick person as the illness having been their fault, such as “Why do you think you got it?” Nobody knows that. Or, the ubiquitous, “Well, any of us could get hit by a bus” which diminishes our experience as dying people. Everybody always says, “Let me know if you need something” but we aren’t going to let you know. So, please just bring over a casserole. Everybody eats!

    • Toni Bernhard

      Hi Ann. Thank you for reading and commenting on my article. I’m sorry to learn of your cancer diagnosis. I can imagine you’ve heard it all. I’ve also written a piece on things we DON’T want to hear and you’ve mentioned two of them. Yes, it’s not our faults. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. You don’t need me to tell you that. I love your suggestion to bring over a casserole and I hope your fridge is full of them. Warmest wishes to you, Toni

  • Jack Cain

    So many people need to hear this message. Both my wife and I have had numerous health issues this year. Just once I would like someone to say “Hey, I know that if you missed the meeting you must have really been in pain” instead of forcing myself to go and then regreting it.

    • Toni Bernhard

      Hi Jack. Thanks for your comment on my piece. Yes, I’d love to have someone say that to me, too! Hopefully this piece will be read by some people other than those of us who have health issues! Warmly, Toni

  • Mark McGraw

    Excellent article and excellent advice. My mother-in-law lived with my wife and I for almost 20 years. It was easier to list the health problems she did not have. I found that she appreciated very matter of fact discussions when we discussed her health. She loved to hear about what you were doing at work or for fun. More than anything, she enjoyed just having her family near her.

    • Toni Bernhard

      Thanks for reading the article and commenting, Mark. I love that your mother-in-law loved hearing about what others were doing for fun. I’ve found so many people are reluctant to share that with me, thinking it will make me feel bad. She was clearly very fortunate to have you and your wife to live with. Warmest wishes, Toni

  • Tina Tarbox

    Hi Toni. This is yet another brilliantly-written article that communicates our shared experiences with chronic illness in such an authentic and engaging manner. Now if we just had a magic wand to wave to ensure that people say these things, we’d be all set!

    • Toni Bernhard

      Hi Tina. Yes, we need that magic wand! Every little step helps though. I hope some of the people who need to see this piece, see it. Warmest wishes, Toni

  • Tammy Crowe Traynum

    Thanks for your article, I have several things I deal with and sometimes feel more like the illness than I do a person. I am a person, and not the illness but when people ask you about it more than the other parts of your life its a drag and makes you feel like you aren’t anything outside the illness. I still love adventure and getting away from the illness and I love the way you talk about living through others adventures because I do that, but also like you said people rarely do that because they are afraid that it will depress me and its quite the opposite. Thanks for your insight.
    : )

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