Choosing the right thing to say when someone’s ill can feel a bit like throwing darts. Here are some pointers.

One friend offering supportive words to her sick friend, over teaShare on Pinterest
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Foremost, the key is to know that there isn’t one ideal thing to say when someone’s dealing with such a hardship — whether it’s a short-term sickness, long-term chronic condition, or terminal illness.

Everyone is unique, and some people may react differently to the things you say.

Being honest, open, and willing to offer support goes a long way to show your person that you’re there for them.

Davina Tiwari, a social worker and certified solution-focused therapist based in Ontario, Canada, suggests adjusting your messaging depending on whether the person is dealing with a minor health issue or a severe illness.

Your tone may be a bit more lighthearted, for example, in the case of a simple cold.

“Responses might take on a deeper meaning if the illness is chronic or terminal,” she says. Tiwari adds that you might offer more support if the illness is more serious.

1. Offer emotional support

Offering emotional support during a difficult time can be incredibly comforting for those who are sick.

When we’re feeling ill, it can be incredibly helpful to know that someone’s there for us.

2. Ask questions

You probably don’t instantly know what the person who’s sick needs, so instead of making assumptions, you may want to ask open-ended questions.

You can skip the awkward guessing games and find out exactly what a person needs by asking direct questions.

3. Offer to help with chores

The person likely has a lot on their mind. In some cases, an illness can make it hard to perform routine physical tasks and daily chores. Offering to help around the house or run errands could be a huge help.

Offering a suggestion takes the pressure off the person and can be proactive.

Examples of chores you might help with include:

  • taking care of kids
  • doing laundry
  • cleaning the person’s house or gifting a house cleaning service
  • getting groceries
  • organizing a meal train
  • taking them to doctor’s appointments

4. Ask what not to do

Not every person with an illness will have the same needs or wants. Tiwari recommends being direct and asking what not to do for the person. This also helps respect their personal boundaries, or areas they’re not comfortable bringing others into.

5. Say what’s in your heart

It’s OK to be open about how you feel when you have a friend with an illness. Saying what’s in your heart is never a bad thing, but know that they may not always respond how you might expect.

It may be a good idea to focus on your loved one and not your own feelings.

6. Remind them how important they are

Having an illness, particularly one that’s chronic or terminal, can feel all-encompassing. Some people may begin to feel like their condition defines them.

It can feel as if they’re losing parts of themselves. Talking to them about their interests, engaging in small talk or unrelated deep conversations may make them feel better.

They may also feel like people no longer want to be around them because of their illness, or if they frequently cancel plans due to health issues.

7. Be honest about not knowing what to say

It’s also OK if you don’t know what to say, says Tiwari.

Bonus tip

You might find these sections on the appropriate tone and gestures to demonstrate your openness to support helpful.

Tiwari recommends you avoid talking about your own health issues when speaking with someone who’s sick.

Though it may feel like the right thing to do and may seem well-intentioned, focusing on your own health issues or your connection to their condition could be dismissive and invalidating.

When talking with a friend newly diagnosed with cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends not sharing in-depth stories about other friends and family members you also know who have had cancer.

Still, you could leave it at letting the person know that you’re familiar with cancer because you know someone else who’s had the experience.

These statements may make a sick person feel as if they have to hide their illness around you.

Also, “making false promises of recovery is also not helpful as there are no guarantees of improvement,” Tiwari says.

It may also be a good idea to avoid giving unsolicited advice. This is especially true for people who’ve been living with an illness for a while. Chances are, they’ve already heard it. “Shoulding” on someone implies you know better about their lived experience.

What’s another way you can help support someone who’s sick? Tiwari says that it may be helpful to act as a spokesperson — if you two are close and with their consent— and share updates with your person’s friends and family.

Doing this can relieve them of the burden of relaying information about their illness to others, which could be draining.

While expressing support to the person is important, communication also involves plenty of listening. Being supportive also means actively listening.

Some older studies indicate that doctors frequently interrupt patients, so simply letting the person feeling ill talk may help them feel better understood.

Sometimes, the person who’s sick may not feel like talking or responding to your supportive thoughts and queries. They may want you to simply physically be there for them or give them space for a bit, and both alternatives are healthy and OK.