What do you say — or avoid — with a person who is ill?
Bruce Feiler, a person who has dealt first-hand with cancer, suggests in The New York Times several things that he thinks are — and aren’t — helpful to say to a friend or family member who is sick.
Here are some of Feiler’s recommendations of what not to say:
- No coddling, please. Adults who are sick often say they are treated like children, Feiler writes. While the individual may need more help, she or he is not a child, but an adult going through a challenging time.
- No pretending. Feiler says that well-wishers claiming ”everything will be okay” can have an opposite effect on the patient. A person dealing with the reality of an illness knows the future is uncertain — and does not necessarily want to hear false assurances.
- No need to say I look good. The body is fighting for health and the person knows that it shows, Feiler says.
Rather than focus on the person’s looks, Feiler suggests the following:
- Reply not required. It takes valuable energy to respond to every well-meaning inquiry personally. Feiler mentions that he designated a friend as the “minister of information” — the person who handles inquiries and sends out group-email updates to friends and family. So, go ahead: drop off dinner or offer to walk the dog — but remind the loved one that a personal response or thank you note is not expected.
- Be brief. Visiting is nice — and it takes emotional energy for the person who is sick to have company. So Feiler encourages friends to keep visits under fifteen or twenty minutes. And remember to wash a few dishes, offer to clean out the fridge, or “take out the trash” on your way out.
- Casually chit-chat. Follow the lead of the individual, writes Feiler. While the person may need a listening ear, she or he may be tired of talking about their illness. Your friend may just want to hear the latest town gossip, or talk politics or pop culture.
- Be honest. “When all else fails, simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain,” writes Feiler. Some suggestions from Feiler? “I’m sorry you have to go through this.” “I hate to see you suffer.” “You mean a lot to me.” Or simply: “I love you.”
For the rest of Feiler’s list, read ‘You Look Great’ and Other Lies.
Reader Question: What do you recommend saying or doing for a person who is ill? What would you change or add to this list?