19 Sep

What To Say/Not To Say When Someone is Sick

Posted by Jenna, Under Tips

Going along with my post on trials a few weeks ago, here is an excellent list of phrases to use, and phrases to avoid, when you’d like to reach out to someone in need. Based on recent familial experiences, I can tell you these really stood out to me as being the truth:

To avoid

1. WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

They already feel like a burden. Listing off their needs only compounds that feeling.

3. DID YOU TRY THAT MANGO COLONIC I RECOMMENDED?

If the person has been ill for awhile, they have probably spent a considerable amount of time researching and hanging out at the office of several different providers. If you do feel like you have to tell them about a miracle solution that worked for your friend or your aunt, offer up the suggestion once and then let it be.

To use

1. DON’T WRITE ME BACK.

I’ve actually personally experienced how awesome it is to hear this one. Mrs. Corn sent me a lovely package filled with toys for T1, and explicitly wrote that I didn’t have to write her a thank you for the gift. The toys were awesome, we’re still using some of them today, but that little note was the part I appreciated most.

2. I SHOULD BE GOING NOW.

Don’t overstay your welcome. Unless the person is talking non-stop, a shorter visit is better than a longer one.

As you can tell, I have this topic on the brain lately. If you have suggestions that aren’t on the NYT list, I’d love to hear them!

 

31 Comments


  1. I’ve wanted to do a post on this. One of the things that I want to tell people not to say (when dealing with someone with a chronic illness) is:

    “I would die if I had to live like that.”

    Translation: “Your life is not worth living.”

    I always, always want to say “Really? Do you hear yourself? Are you telling me I might as well kill myself now?”

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    Jenna Reply:

    I sincerely hope people have not said this to you. How frustrating!

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  2. I would add to the avoid list, “You’re too young for xyz illness!” More often than not, you’re wrong and they fall in the normal range for when that illness strikes. I’m sure it’s usually an attempt at sympathy, but it comes across as doubt for the validity of your diagnosis. Not cool.

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  3. To this day, the best gift we received when we had our son was the note my sister included with her gift saying NOT to write a thank you note, but to take that time for myself. I’m a huge stickler for thank you notes and was unprepared for how hard it would be to keep track of everything we received, who it came from and whether we had sent a note already…it was a mess and I know some people got two thank you’d while others got none. That’s why I always specify to new parents now to NOT send a thank you :)

    Glad it was as good for you as it was for me :)

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  4. My twin boys were born 13 weeks early, so we spent many months dealing with the NICU. One son died at 5 months old. The best things people did for us was:
    Instead of asking, ‘what can I do for you or what do you need?’ — they made the request specific: When can I drop off dinner for you? When can I walk your dogs? Or they sent care packages of food. After all, we still needed to eat. Be specific.

    I love the part in the note: don’t bother writing a thankyou note. I loved it when people sent us emails/texts, etc., but was so thankful that they understood if I didn’t respond to each one. We were dealing with enough stress as it was. I loved getting comments on the blog because that’s where I wrote about everything.

    There’s so much more…I could give more details if anyone is interested about things to say/not say in a similar situation.

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  5. Thank you for this post!

    Other things you shouldn’t say: “Sorry I’m always asking but how is…” – if you recognize you’re always asking, then just don’t do it! Conversely, if you have to ask, don’t apologize first cause if you were really sorry you wouldn’t ask. Finally, as a family member of someone who’s going through health problems you realize that everyone will always be asking. If you have no business asking, we’ll tell you (and the level of polite will depend on the day).

    “Did you get the _ I sent?” – I understand that if you took the time to do something nice you want to make sure the resources involved weren’t wasted but odds are the person and their family hasn’t had time to write you a thank you note yet and asking repeatedly is a lot like nagging for thanks/attention and I hope that’s not why you did the nice thing in the first place.

    “How are you/your family members holding up?” – I got asked this all the time when my mom was sick and I never had an answer. I felt like I had to put on the strong face for everyone because, as you said, we already felt like a burden. It was just a reminder that what we were going through was awful and scary.

    I feel like there are a bunch more, but those are the big ones.

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    Life On Mulberry Reply:

    I struggle with the no thank you note thing, only because I feel like I do NOT get a lot of mail that people send me. I live in an apartment building and packages either get stolen/misplaced or the Post Office gives up on trying to get me in person and returns to sender… but the sender never gets them.

    Wondering if there’s a polite way to say, “please don’t write a thank you note but please call so i know it isn’t lost in the abyss that is USPS.” In the meantime, I’ll stick to using tracking numbers and will try telling new parents that notes aren’t necessary!

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  6. When my parents had cancer this year it was just nice when people checked in — I became a bit of a hermit and I will honestly always remember the people that constantly sent a nice note or email.

    However, I got really frustrated and annoyed when right when I found out that my dad’s cancer had spread again and I was with Sean’s family and his sister started questioning the doctors and never once said I am so sorry. She just said I don’t know what to say and then started talking about everyone she knew that died of cancer…or say everyone has cancer. I felt like that comment really belittled what I was going through.

    But I read this on another blog a few weeks ago — don’t say what can I do — say what you are going to do — for example I will be there at five with dinner.

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  7. Avoid this: “You don’t look sick.” Thanks, but I am. Is this supposed to be doubting, or encouraging? This one also applies to mental illness.

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  8. I don’t like, “How are you feeling” in regards to any transition in life.

    Do people really want to hear “I feel like crap..I feel like killing myself. I feel like I’m not myself. I feel like I want to die. I feel like I’m never going to be the same. It’s really hard. I hate my life right now” – NO!

    They want to hear “I’m doing fine. I’m doing great. I’m feeling better. Nothing’s changed. I’m still the same person. Thank you very much for asking”- Which is so selfish on the part of the person asking the question.

    Unless you really want to hear how someone is doing, don’t ask. Asking that question makes some people feel like they have to give a blanket nice answer and can’t be honest about what they are going through.

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  9. I hate “Oh, you don’t look so good!” or “You look really tired.” Translation … you look like crap! And trust me, if I’m sick enough for someone to be able to tell by my looks, I’m very aware of how I look and don’t need a reminder. Thanks!

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  10. Your very first point articulated what I have not been able to for so long.

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  11. I really enjoyed the article, I’m surprised by how helpful it was for me. I’ve always felt a little awkward offering assistance for someone who is sick, often falling back on the “What can I do for you?”. I truly do want to help but don’t want to feel like I’m barging in on their lives. It’s a great reminder I can just do something heartfelt and let them know they can use it or not, and no need for a thank you if it is helpful. So — thanks! :)

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  12. Sarah Shore says:

    As someone who has dealt with both a chronic health condition and an illness that left me unable to live my normal life for a few months, I don’t actually mind the what can I do for you question…as long as the person asking is prepared for the answer. I learned early in my battles with my chronic condition that I needed to graciously accept offers of help and that I needed to be specific. There are many generous people out there, but they don’t always know what to do. One of my doctors suggested that I make a list of things that I could use help with and when someone asked that question they could chose what they wanted from the list.

    It worked well – those who offered help were happy to have me accept their help and to choose something that they were able to do. Because it was on a list, I didn’t have to feel strange asking if they could help with a load of laundry or pick up my groceries or scrub out the tub or drive me to my appointment – and I didn’t end up with too many frozen dishes for my freezer or company when I didn’t want it. I appreciate that people need direction, but it’s even harder to say “no” when you’re not well – if someone said I’m coming by with dinner tonight at 5, I don’t know that I’d be able to say, no, please don’t, but if they asked what they could do and I gave them my list and on it was a request for a freezer meal or lunch next Tuesday and they wanted to cook for us, those options were there…

    The other thing to remember – if you offer your help to someone, follow up with them – when I was sick, I couldn’t remember who to call but I really appreciated getting calls from friends or family saying “Hey, I just wanted to remind you of my offer to help”

    I’m sorry…I’m not sure that makes much sense, I’m a bit rambly today…

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    Jackie Reply:

    I agree with you. I think the whole “offer to do something specific” is nice in theory, but doesn’t really work. I mean the article suggested changing someone’s oil. Yeah right! Unless they are someone who you know so well as to know if they need their oil changed you might just offend them by suggesting they’ve been too out of it to change their oil.

    I have a chronic health condition too, and I guess since I wasn’t open/honest enough about it, I got no offers of help. I wouldn’t mind giving people suggestions – can you help me fold laundry one day? can you pick up a few things from the grocery store for me? There are some days that the pain is too bad for me to stand and I would love if I had someone that I could call and ask for a little help from.

    Lately I’ve wondered what I’m going to do when I have a baby and people bring over the casserole brigade. I’m on a really specific diet and I don’t want the food to go to waste, but on the other hand, I know I won’t be able to eat most of what people just decide to bring. So I think asking ahead is good. Even if its just a “I’m making chili or baked ziti – which would you prefer?” Or a “Hey, I’m already at the grocery store/mall/library, can I get anything for you?”

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    SarahShore Reply:

    I have a really restricted diet (because of the chronic condition) too and most of those close to me know that – when I needed help with the unexpected illness, those who offered to bring food also asked for a list of things to avoid…about a week into the illness, when it became apparent it was going to be a longish thing, a friend of mine called and asked if she could coordinate some stuff for us – she had a specific plan and it worked well. It might work for you when you have a baby. She gathered all the email addresses of the people she (or my husband or I) knew would help or had already offered to help and got in touch with them about food. She took my cookbook and scanned a bunch of recipes that would freeze well and if anyone wanted to bring us food but didn’t know what to do with my list of no-gos, she sent them a couple of recipes…

    I figure I have some pretty amazing friends…I’m pretty lucky!

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  13. Here is the biggest DON’T for me: “Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing” (about other people’s illnesses). My mother does it all the time and it’s infuriating. I have told her repeatedly how disrespectful it is to a sick person to tell them their illness is not such a big deal. She always finds a way to “downgrade” whatever is wrong with people (if someone has pneumonia she insists it’s just a cold, if they have IBS she insists they just ate something they shouldn’t). She claims she does it to be kind and people just need to be positive. She has repeatedly gotten angry at me for calling my tumor a tumor. She has told me I love the word. No, I don’t like the word, but I have a tumor. Calling it a “thingie” is not going to make me feel better.

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    Stephanie C Reply:

    My mom does something similar. I have an Autoimmune disease that is well managed, but she usually talks more about how I shouldn’t ‘confess’ that I have asthma.. or allergies, etc. Then on the other hand, my MIL is the complete opposite! If I had a cold she’s afraid it’s bronchitis.

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  14. Can I also add never say “At least it’s not XYZ illness.” Oh really? You think you know what is better and what’s not? You think you know what pain I’m in??

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    Stephanie C Reply:

    In a more general statement.. I always hate “It could be worse.” ANYTHING that starts with “At least its not..(blank)” ends up invalidating or belittling your situation. UGH!

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  15. I have an ex-neighbor who would always one up my illness. That got old fast. Also, people telling me that birth was the most painful awful thing ever through while I’m pregnant. I don’t need to hear other women’s horror stories when I’m trying to stay positive. Same goes for talking about how much pain someone will be in after a surgery. Not helpful.

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  16. I have to admit, I ask “what can I do to help” because I don’t want it to seem like I’m being pushy/bossy/annoying if I just jump in and start doing things unasked.

    Because, honestly, if I don’t ask “What can I do to help?” I worry that I am *then* encroaching on your last point- don’t overstay your welcome. I worry that I’ll think “oh, I know, I’ll clean their kitchen!” and they’ll be thinking “go the eff home, crazy lady, why are you doing my dishes??”

    In my brain, the first don’t, and the last do, kind of contradict one another. Which takes precedence? Because the flip side is that I have heard people complain that no one helps them, because everyone just thought “oh, they want their space”. I guess my family was just really big on saying what you mean, and asking for what you need, so the whole making assumptions portion of this list makes me really uncomfortable. My favorite uncle slowly died in front of me the summer I was 16, and I was his primary daytime caretaker for his last weeks on this earth. He had a dinner plate sized surfaced lymph node tumor that had to be dressed 3 times a day, and he had AIDS. Everyone was open and honest with one another- he had the right to get angry/sad/frustrated, so did we, and it was all out on the table. So I guess my experience with severe, terminal illness was just very different.

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    Sophia Reply:

    To clarify that first sentence- I use common sense, so of course I’ll jump right in and offer rides or meals or things like that, general things that are helpful. But much more than that and I feel very overbearing, doing things without being asked.

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    Kelli Nicole Reply:

    My boyfriend was hospitalized in July so I lived there for a week and some friends with a key to my apartment cleaned my kitchen and bathroom without me knowing it and it was AWESOME. The kitchen was a total wreck as I didn’t have time to clean it the day we found out he was being admitted, and it meant I didn’t have to waste time on it and got to get back to the hospital sooner. How to react will obviously depend on the person, but I really appreciated it.

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    Sophia Reply:

    I think this is different for a few key reasons. One, you were not there when this was happening, so it didn’t put them in danger of “overstaying their welcome”. Two, they were close enough friends to have a key to your home, and giving someone a key to your home implies permission for them to be there when you aren’t. Three, given two, once they were in your home they saw that the kitchen was wreck and so it was an obvious way to help. Like I said, there are certain situations where the needed help is quite obvious without being asked. But as Jackie above mentioned, suggesting that someone change the oil in your car without your permission/knowledge? That’s just weird. Let’s say, if those friends didn’t have a key, but they contacted a friend who did and let themselves in and cleaned your place, and then waited there for you guys to get home to surprise you. Totally different (in my opinion). And awkward things like that can happen if people just jump in to help on really random/specific things without being asked, or without it being clear that those things are needed.

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    Kelli Nicole Reply:

    Good point.

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    Hayley Marie Reply:

    I agree. I think I agree with most things on this list but the whole “what can I do to help?” can go in both categories from the way I see it. I dated a guy for a long time with long-term medical issues and my family is in the middle of watching my little cousin go through some really serious health trials (long story short, he was pronounced brain dead in November but is now home and recovering). I know our family has been greatly blessed by those who say “what can I do to help”. We don’t feel the need to list of everything we need help with, but feel comfortable saying “you know, can you take so-and-so to his soccer practice this week? We have therapy sessions on Tuesdays and I just can’t make it.” We have a big family and really try and take care of all the extra needs but when you have both parents spending every moment at the hospital, it is nice to free up some time and let people help. I’m not saying this is always the case, but I just don’t feel it is quite so cut and dry. I think the main factor is how well you know the person really.

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  17. As the person who WASN’T sick, but was still living in the hospital, I took full advantage of people who asked what they could do to help and told them what they could do! Because of that I never had to leave his hospital room unless I had a photo shoot. I felt a little selfish, but people brought in meals every day and it was amazing because I never had to leave his side. I did, however, appreciate the people who just did things without asking. JJ is still very sick and probably will be for a while, but most people don’t know it and I’m always hearing “I’m so glad he’s feeling better,” to which I reply “He’s not, it’s just that nobody can tell.” Maybe that’s a little snarky, but oh well.

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    Hayley Marie Reply:

    I agree. People ask how my cousin is doing and half the time I just say “well he is getting better” because he is… but he is still having a hard time. It just makes it easier sometimes. I think you make a great point though. If you want to ask the “how can I help?” question, it might be better to ask someone close enough to the situation to know any needs, but not the person who is actually going through the health issue.

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  18. My husband had major surgery this winter which uncovered cancer — and then had 6 months of chemo. We live far from family and have a toddler, so it was an interesting time!

    If it weren’t for the people who stepped in and helped I would have been in TROUBLE. And because they weren’t family, I had a really hard time asking for it…I was just blessed with new friends that were assertive and stepped in. I love them for it!

    I got a lot of meals and I LOVED it when they came in disposable containers. (Or ones I could keep.) It was so kind to get meals no matter what, but difficult when the nice Pyrex bowls started piling up in my sink.

    Childcare is also huge. Just offering to take someone’s kiddos (if they have them, ha) for a couple hours is an enormous enormous help. I could cry thinking of all the people who just said called up, unasked and said: “I’ll take Harper for a few hours, see you soon!” I could sit by Clay’s side or do house stuff without wrangling my little one. They will hold a special place in my heart *forever*.

    One last thing! It’s good if you can try and say a little something to the person/significant other when things are rough. I know it’s hard to find the right words sometimes, but it’s okay if they’re not perfect! Some of my old friendships really suffered when the person just disappeared, too scared they’d say the wrong thing. Keep it simple and sincere and you’ll be fine. One thing that always works? “I’m so sorry and I’m thinking of you all. Please know I’m here for you.”

    Thanks for posting this, Jenna!

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  19. I have never been the one to have a chronic illness but I am struggling with infertility. It has made me a lot more sensitive to what others are going through. I know I don’t appreciate people telling me that it’s not serious or telling me I should do or what will be a magic fix. I would never tell someone who has a chronic illness anything but “I’m sorry you’re going through this”. If I know them well enough, I will offer assistance with something specific like picking kids up from school, doing the more strenuous household tasks or grocery shopping, but only if I’m really going to follow through on that offer.

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