What to Say When Someone is Ill
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, November 2014
For many of us, when we find out that a friend or family member is seriously ill, we wonder how we can be supportive. Just thinking about it can send us into a tailspin. Not only because we are sad about their diminished health, but because we often don't know what to say. When we are fearful of saying something inappropriate, we sometimes choose to say or do nothing at all.
It is helpful to remember that when someone is ill, that person is the one in pain. We need to focus our attention on what he or she needs. Most often, what someone needs is simply to be heard, sympathetically. We can offer to listen sensitively and that, in itself, is a source of comfort.
Everyone is different so what works for someone may not work for someone else -- and what works at the beginning of an illness may not work toward the end of treatment. Here is where you can take your cues from the person.
What I am sure of is that support comes in a variety of ways. A "sit by the beach" can do a world of good. So can going out for coffee. If going out is not possible, arrange a movie night with Netflix and bring popcorn. Find ways to be useful without taking over the person's life; this can be a moving target that requires paying attention. The important thing is that we don't disappear. Reach out. If the person is not up to talking or visiting, that is fine, just don't go away.
We need to let the people we care about know we are available and will stay for the long haul. A few months into it, when everyone else has gone back to their lives, THAT'S really when visits and conversations may be most needed. The dog still needs to be walked, the laundry still needs to be done, and dinner still needs to be delivered. Remember, often, people feel LESS WELL as they move along the road to recovery. It is part of the process until they begin to feel better.
Sometimes a person who is ill won't believe they can "do it" (whatever "it" is). Your role is to remind them that they can and they will -- even when they don't believe it themselves. We all need to be "held" by our friends and family, physically and metaphorically, so let that be a guide.
Ultimately, being there when a friend or family member is about being there is one way or another; listening, without judgment; and forgetting about being right.