What to Say When... Illness Strikes

A loved one is diagnosed with a devastating illness. Here's what they really want to hear -- and what they don't

No matter how you get the news -- over coffee, an email or even a Facebook update -- learning that someone you care about is battling a horrible disease is unnerving. You want to respond. But what can you say? And what does that person need to hear?

The answer is less complicated than you might think, says David Stephens, Psy.D., dean of the School of Professional Psychology at the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“The most important thing they need is to know that you will support them in whatever way they need,” says Dr. Stephens. “So ask, ‘How are you?’ and ‘What can I do?’ Tell the person, ‘If you need to talk in the middle of the night, I’m available. And if you’re not ready to talk about it, I’m okay with that too. I’ll take the lead from you.’”

Here are some more suggestions from people who have battled serious illnesses on what to say -- and what never to say -- when you learn someone you care about is sick.

Don’t play doctor. A Google search doesn’t turn you into a disease expert. “I heard, ‘You should try this supplement, oxygen therapy, color therapy,’” says cancer survivor Mary Schnack, 55, of Los Angeles. “People want to say something to show that they care. But the most helpful thing to ask is, ‘What can I do to help?’”

Don’t trivialize. Avoid blasé statements such as, “Any of us could die tomorrow,” or, “You never know what could happen. You could be hit by a bus.” “I don't know what the odds are of being hit by a bus, but I think most people have more than a 1 percent chance of reaching age 60,” says Beth Morgan, 49, of Southern Pines, N.C., who has multiple myeloma. “Somehow, they seem to think these ideas are comforting. They’re not. I tell them so.”

Watch what you complain about. “My prognosis is poor, and right after my diagnosis I was struggling to come to terms with not being around 10 to 20 years from now,” says Marissa Henley, 34, of Fayetteville, Ark., who is battling angiosarcoma. “So it's hard for me when people complain about having teenagers. I'm desperately hoping to have the privilege of parenting my kids when they are teenagers.”

Do say, "I love you." At first, Henley admits, this was weird to hear from people who’d never said it before. But over time it became a great comfort. Saying, “I’m praying for you,” is also appreciated in most cases, but if you’re unsure as to the person’s religious beliefs “You’re in my thoughts” is another valuable sentiment, says Dr. Stephens.

Be a good listener. “When I told people I had cancer I did not really want them to say anything,” says Michelle Colon-Johnson, 42, of Gulf Breeze, Fla. “Being able to verbalize it was my form of therapy. I wanted them to understand why I was not feeling well.” Dr. Stephens suggests practicing reflective listening, where you reflect back the emotions the person you are with is feeling. (“You seem anxious today.” “You’re very quiet today -- is there something on your mind?”) This gives the ill person the choice to talk -- or not.

Do send messages that don’t require a reply. A “Thinking of you” text, an email that ends with, “You don’t have to respond to this, but I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you” is greatly appreciated when a person is overwhelmed by doctor’s appointments and not feeling well. Lastly, it’s not just your words that offer support. Sometimes a hug can say even more.

“Don’t forget the power of touch,” says Dr. Stephens. “Physical touch is a basic human need and it very much conveys support and love. A hug, pat on the back, or rubbing a person’s arm as they’re going through chemotherapy helps a person feel less isolated.”

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