“What to say to someone who’s sick” – A blog response

Ideally, you would be able to take the time to learn good communication skills (see below) before talking to your sick friend/family member.

But what if you don’t have time to learn good communication skills before visiting or talking to your sick friend/family member?

If you are going to visit a sick friend or family member very soon and you want some ideas about what to say, my suggestion is to focus more on your presence than your words. Your presence speaks volumes. Try to focus on listening to the person with 100% of your being. In the moments that you are with your friend or family member, listening to him or her should seem like the most important thing in your life. If your mind wanders to your “to-do list” or to some concern in your life, catch it, and focus on being there for your friend/family member. If there is an “awkward silence” don’t worry about it. Breathe deeply during the silence and then let your friend or family member know that s/he doesn’t have to say anything, you are there to support him or her in whatever way possible and you are glad just to be there with him or her. If you can’t think of anything to say then be honest, say something like, “I care about you and I’m here for you, even if I don’t know what to say or do.”


A blog response to “What to say to someone who’s sick,” an article by Bruce Feiler.

I went through hell when I was really sick and in a lot of pain, but it was my own unique hell.

The blogosphere tends to oversimplify the complexity of serious issues with clever titles and tips. Five ways to resolve conflict. Ten ways to be happy. Eleven ways to be unremarkably average. Just read a blog post and your life can be so much better afterwards. But I was surprised to read a clever tip list like this in the New York Times concerning “what to say to someone who’s sick.”

The author, Bruce Feiler, a cancer veteran, wrote two lists with the do’s and don’t’s of communicating with friends and family members who are ill. I have no doubt that Feiler had the best of intentions in writing his article. He went through the hell of cancer and he didn’t want others to have to deal with the same kinds of frustrations he dealt with. But Feiler forgot that his hell was unique and that his preferences as a patient were unique.

Let’s start with his first “don’t” tip, “What can I do to help?” Feiler thinks this question unnecessarily burdens the patient. But that is just his opinion. Personally, I loved when friends asked me this question because I was often in need of help and it was hard for me–Miss super independent–to admit it. When I was severely ill, I frequently needed a ride home from the hospital and I was so glad when someone asked me what they could do to help. “Pick me up,” I would respond. Sometimes I had to take a taxi, if it was, for example at 6am or if I couldn’t find a ride. It meant a world of difference to me to have a friend or family member pick me up instead of taking a taxi. I basked in the care and warmth of my friend/family member the whole way home.

Feiler’s second piece of advice is never to say, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” Again, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, perhaps it is a “mindless cliche” to some, but I believe that people say that when they mean, “I care about you and I wish I could help you suffer less.” They just don’t necessarily use those words. I’m a member of a wonderful Facebook group for people with inflammatory bowel disease (Let’s Talk Crohn’s and other GI issues) and every time someone is in the hospital, there is an outpouring of support–from patients to other patients–in the form of FB comments with “my thoughts and prayers are with you” and similar variations.  As far as I know, the patients receiving this support are appreciative, not resentful of these comments. Now, there may be some patients who want a less generic form of support. I think that we as patients need to communicate our needs also.

Feiler implores readers not to give advice to their ill friends on how to fight the illness. I have gotten hundreds of tips from well-meaning friends and family members to try this or that therapy. Sometimes I’ve felt annoyed, honestly, especially when the tips came after I had already achieved long-term remission from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). But the truth is that 1) most people giving such advice really just want to help and they don’t know much about providing empathy, so they try to provide solutions, and 2) one of those tips might actually help. For me, it was the tip of a friend who had a friend with IBD. She said that her friend with IBD had tried 6MP (an immunosuppressant medicine) and was doing well on it, and would I like to make contact with her friend? Hell yeah! That was how I learned about 6MP, which helped me stop a vicious cycle of hospitalizations.

The next two of Feiler’s tips I actually agree with. If you are scared to death of death and your vitals look terrible, someone saying “everything will be okay” is just not comforting or reassuring. The issue I have with Feiler’s tips, overall, is that they are cookie-cutter statements based on his personal experiences. Reading these lists could easily give rise to misunderstandings because the reader thinks s/he learned something important about talking to a friend with illness, and that friend doesn’t seem to appreciate being asked, for example, “Would you like to hear some gossip?” (one of Feiler’s tips on what to say to patients).

My first response to that question about gossip would be, “No, not really, not ever. I’d rather have an enema.” But then, maybe other patients would love to hear some mindless gossip. We’re all unique (have I said that too many times? No)!

Good communication skills take time and effort to develop. If you really want to learn how to communicate better — as a patient or as a friend/family member of a patient — read a book, watch an in-depth video, or go to a class on communication.

Here are some communication resources that I recommend:

How Can I Help? (book by Ram Dass)

Keeping Calm and Carrying On When a Friend has Cancer

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (book by Marshall Rosenberg)

Nonviolent Communication: Part 1 (video with Marshall Rosenberg)

Stuff Healthy People Say to Sick People (what NOT to say to sick people)

The Center for Nonviolent Communication (website)

The Wisdom of Listening (book edited by Mark Brady)

What Really Helps? (book by Karen Kissel Wegela)

What Really Helps? An Interview with Karen Kissel Wegela

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bob Stickles
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 00:56:36

    I believe you are looking at from a womens brain not a male brain. Women want to discuss it men don’t . When I was sick I didn’t want to tell the same story over and over again and listen to people “not know what to say” comments because they in away want you to sugar coat it for then so they felt better that they looked like they cared. Women want to discuss and share with each other men just wnat to share when they are ready or not at all.


    • Erica
      Jun 24, 2011 @ 08:32:11

      Bob, I appreciate your comment and there could be culturally-influenced communication preferences, but 1) I think it is a generalization to say that men don’t want to discuss their conditions. I have plenty of male friends who do want to discuss their health conditions, and 2) anyone–male or female–could benefit from learning a bit about how to communicate better, if only to learn how to assert their needs and say, “I need some space right now and I’d prefer not to talk about it.” Communication with a patient is not always about “let the patient discuss and share.” I think that skillful communication with a patient means trying to find out what the patient actually needs. Many people make assumptions about what patients need. An article like the one in the NY Times doesn’t encourage friends of patients to listen actively to find out what their friends need and want. Maybe the patient wants to be left alone. Active listening and skillful communication would improve the likelihood that patients’ needs are met, regardless of their sex.


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