When someone you care about is sick, you want to offer comfort. You want to add to their resilience, boost their ability to look forward with hope and optimism. But sometimes it’s hard to see the experience from their perspective instead of your own. When you say, “I know how you feel,” what you mean is that you empathize with their pain, but what the ill person may hear is that you feel like you’ve been through their situation and everything should be fine — what’s the big deal? When someone has a serious or chronic illness, especially a young person, communication can be super-charged and it’s easy to accidentally say the wrong thing. Of course any description of what to say and what not to say to young people with serious illness is destined to be incomplete, and because every person’s situation and personality are unique, pieces of this list may resonate with some and not with others. But we hope this is a starting point — a place to begin a conversation with the young person in your life about the kind of support he or she needs from you as they navigate their illness.
Here are some of the most common “stupid things” that we often hear people say to young people with serious illness:
1. “I know how you feel!”
Unless you’ve lived with the person’s condition, in that person’s body, and with that person’s surrounding circumstances, how could you possibly know how they feel? Maybe you can imagine how that person feels. But implying you know exactly what someone else is going through belittles their experience. Instead, maybe try something like, “I’m so sorry that you’re struggling,” or “I can relate to what you’re saying.”
2. “Everything will be fine.”
In many cases, things will not be fine, and saying that it will be will just simply ring false. Even if the person’s condition is curable, what they’ve been through, are going through, and will have to endure are not “fine”. Being sick is awful. Imagining that the person you care about will be fine probably does more to make you feel better.
3. “You’re doing awesome!”
Versions of this are probably okay. But what if the person you’re talking to isn’t doing awesome? Are you really recognizing their current state or are you forcing on them what you want to be true? When a sick person hear this, it can make them feel like they have to hide the times they’re not okay.
4. “You shouldn’t be doing…”
From antibiotics to chemotherapy to surgery, some people don’t believe in certain treatments. Or maybe you’ve read that people with certain conditions shouldn’t ride roller coasters or eat sugar. But don’t you think this person is sick and tired of being told what to do with their body? Your pessimism can undercut their hope.
5. “You should take better care of yourself.”
It’s hard to see someone you care about retreat from the world. Or maybe this person is losing or gaining weight. Maybe he or she stops putting on makeup or flossing. The thing is, your judgment doesn’t help. Often telling someone struggling with illness to make changes can result in the exact opposite. Instead of judging from your perspective, try to support this person wherever they’re at.
6. “Don’t worry.”
If your illness is going to affect what someone can and can’t do for the rest of their life, you gotta expect there’s going to be some worry involved. Saying, “Don’t worry!” puts the burden on the sick person, making it their fault if they worry.
7. “What can I do to help?”
When someone is sick, you want to help! And maybe it’s not immediately obvious what to do. But it might not be obvious to the sick person, either, and asking him or her to brainstorm ways that you can be useful is just another burden. Instead, when working with an extended illness, consider designating a friend or family member to be the help coordinator. THIS is the person you can ask how to help.
8. “I’m so sorry for you!”
When you’re sick, it’s hard enough trying to make it through the day without sinking into self-pity. It’s even harder when people reinforce this pity.
9. “You look great!”
If it’s true, feel free to say it. But sick people know how they look and often it’s not great. Like many of the entries in this list, saying something to a sick person that is obviously untrue can serve to highlight the exact truth you’re trying to cover up.
10. “If you fight, you can beat this!”
Depending on the sickness, it may be up to medicine and luck to decide whether the person beats their condition. Saying that it’s up to the person to overcome can make it seem like they’re a failure when they struggle.
We know you’ve heard these things. Chances are, many of us have said them. Again, it’s not that we mean to be unhelpful, only that we sometimes lose track of who we are helping — the sick person or ourselves. Even outside these phrases, consider your perspective. If you find yourself talking about your feelings, your expectations, and your hopes, consider reframing your words. Supporting people with serious illnesses where they are at, authentically and without judgment, can be the greatest gift you can give.