Getting diagnosed with a serious illness that requires a lot of medical intervention is an extremely stressful experience. There’s a lot to navigate, and as the friend, family member or even casual acquaintance of someone going through a difficult health scenario, you want to help ease the burden, not make it worse. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t say to someone who is ill.
Don’t Give Medical Advice
One of the biggest complaints from people who are fighting cancer or any kind of life-threatening disease is how many people around them suddenly become doctors. On Reddit, MondoCalrissian77 posted in r/LifeProTips to say cut that crap out:
You’d think this shouldn’t have to be said, but when my mother got cancer a bunch of family and friends try to give advice that’s totally false or only partially correct since they never did real research and only heard part if the advice. Leave this to the professionals and stick to comfort and being there for them.
Unless you are a doctor, your understanding of what that person medically needs is probably limited. Even you’ve been through a similar illness, it still isn’t appropriate to offer medical advice unless asked. That bit of advice gleaned from an article you read four years ago is not likely to shed new light on the situation, and parroting it is just annoying.
Don’t Try To Figure Out Why
When we find out someone has a serious illness, we might feel the urge to figure out how they got it. Is it genetic? Did they contract it somewhere abroad? Did they eat the wrong things? Basically, what did they do to invite this tragedy into their lives?
You may not consciously think that you blame someone for being sick, but we often look for ways to understand what someone did so we can imagine there’s a way to avoid it happening to us.
Writer Steven Thrasher wrote an op-ed for The Guardian in 2016 about the tendency to tell cancer patients about miracle cures, something he witnessed a lot of when his sister became sick with cancer. People wanted his sister to care for herself in the way they thought best, and if she didn’t, it seemed to imply she was at fault if she didn’t recover:
Don’t tell a sick or injured person what they should do, because it’s a sneaky and harmful way of dealing with your own fear of death. You’re saying, tsk tsk – I wouldn’t let this happen to me the way you’ve let it happen to you.
They don’t need your advice or your curiosity — and they definitely don’t need your judgement.
Don’t Tell People to ‘Think Positive’
In 2010, Barbara Ehrenreich published her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It covered her own experience with cancer, and how people are marketed the idea that thinking positively will make them miraculously well.
The book dives deep into the history and science (which is basically non-existent) behind this concept, and how it’s often used — similarly to unsolicited medical advice — to shame.
There is wisdom in enjoying life as much as you can in the moment, to not go spiralling out when things feel dark. But it also isn’t up to you to remind your loved one that they should “stay positive”. Sometimes people need space to vent, to talk about how things might get worse, to express their fears. Don’t make them think they need to stay upbeat to cure themselves.
Fortunately, the alternative to optimism is not pessimism, which can be equally delusional. What we need here is some realism, or the simple admission that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker, “stuff happens,” including sometimes very, very bad stuff... Some will call this negative thinking, but the technical term is sobriety.
Offer to Do Specific Things
Sometimes it’s hard to know what someone needs, and our default is to say, “Let me know if I can do anything.” Consider that someone might be too sick or tired to even figure out what they need. They might also fear putting a burden on you.
Instead, offer specifics. If you’re going to be in their neighbourhood, ask if you can drop off dinner or take the dog for a walk or take their kids to the park. And if you aren’t getting a response, give them space for a while and then try again.
Being supported can be overwhelming. If you’re intimate with someone, just show up. You can clean their kitchen and leave it at that — there is no grander gesture than taking care of the mundane.
Tell Them You Love Them
This seems like it should go without saying, but maybe the simplest thing you can do for someone close to you who’s sick is to tell them how much they mean to you. Author Bruce Feiler told NPR in 2011 that when he was diagnosed with bone cancer, he was most grateful to people who skipped platitudes or cliches and expressed their honest feelings:
“The most important, maybe even the simplest, is just ... a simple, direct expression of emotion,” he says. “‘I love you. I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I’m reaching out to you.’”
Feiler says such statements can make all the difference.
“These simple gestures really echo so deeply in the souls of the patient, because it makes that human connection,” he says. “Just talk about how you feel about the person, simply and directly. And perhaps that’s the best medicine you can give somebody.”
And finally, always remember that one of your best options is just to listen.