How to Be a True Friend, When Someone You Love is Sick

by Bob Curley on July 4, 2011

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?