We all have the best intentions when talking to people in our lives who are suffering from an illness, ranging from the common cold or temporary ailment to serious physical or mental health complications. However, even the best intentioned compliments, comments, suggestions or advice we give others can be insulting, hurtful or simply make them feel worse about their suffering.
You don’t know what they’re going through. And they might not know where you’re coming from.
Here are 20 things you should think twice about saying to someone who is sick.
In addition to discounting someone’s disease, telling someone that it is all in their head is a plain lie. While research does support a mind-body connection with some chronic illnesses (for example, stress can contribute to heart conditions) most health conditions are totally real and their formation has little to do with what is going on in the brain.
Even if a few months have passed since somebody suffered a traumatic injury or health condition, never assume they are “all better.” “I had one salon owner say to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were recovered and healed’ just a few months after I suffered a stroke!” Denise Baron, healer and Ayurvedic expert tells The Remedy. “Meanwhile, it was almost three years until I was totally recovered.”
First of all, chances are the answer is yes. Most people who are suffering from a chronic condition have tried pretty much everything imaginable to get better. Second, are you a doctor? Chances are the answer is no. “I had one spiritual guru always giving me advice about what I should be eating and strict diets I should be following,” Baron maintains. “Ironically, it was the smoking, drinking and cursing crowd that offered to take to my doctor’s appointments, the grocery store or to my favorite café—things that were actually helpful in my recovery!”
“In 2015 I was being treated for thyroid cancer,” journalist and author Christine Coppa reveals. Part of the preparation involved adhering to a strict low-iodine diet for 30 days prior to ingesting a radioactive iodine pill and isolating for 4 days, because she couldn’t expose other people—or even her dog—to the radiation levels. At the time, she was working part-time as an editor for a digital lifestyle brand, where there was no shortage of yummy test kitchen treats, conference room bagels, freebie lunches and of course, the cocktail parties.
“Even though my coworkers knew about my diet I was often met with, ‘OMG, just have a cupcake!,’ or ‘What, are you off carbs this month?’ ‘It’s just a shrimp!’ (Shrimp is iodine-heavy) or ‘One slice of pizza isn’t going to matter!’” But in reality, it does matter. “Saying something like that to a person with cancer, who already had her thyroid and the tumor removed over two invasive surgeries is hurtful and ignorant,” she explains. When someone is sick, they shouldn’t have to explain to you why they can’t eat or drink specific items. “I wasn’t cutting calories, or being trendy by omitting gluten,” she points out. “I was trying to get well. Truth is, I inhaled a pizza after I got the all-clear!”
Unless you have a medical accreditation after your name, please refrain from giving others medical advice. Other than urging them to see a professional, any medical advice you give somebody could be hazardous to their health. Would you really want to feel responsible if you told them to take a specific supplement, and it severely counteracted with another medication they were already taking? Nope. So just keep your mouth shut.
Again, if you don’t have a medical degree, refrain from prescribing treatment methods. Most people are aware that exercise is beneficial for many physical and mental health conditions, but oftentimes it isn’t quite that easy for someone who is sick to work up a sweat. Whether it has to do with physical pain or the mental fog and fatigue they are dealing with, that is preventing them from exercise, they probably already know that they should be exercising. They don’t need you to tell them.
Despite what you might think, there is no common “look” to sickness. According to the CDC, 60 percent of Americans live with a chronic disease, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. It is important to keep in mind that while many people might be silently suffering, chronic illnesses don’t necessarily include visible symptoms. While you might be trying to make someone feel better by telling them they don’t appear sick, it could potentially make them feel as though you are discounting their suffering.
Pain and suffering are not universal, so there is no way that you can know exactly what someone is going through — even if you have suffered the exact same illness. “Everyone experiences illness differently,” Matthew Mintz, MD, points out. “The illness experience is a combination of pathology (the actual disease process causing the illness), genetics/host susceptibility (how your body reacts), culture, previous illness experience, and a host of other factors.” Instead of saying that you know how someone is feeling he suggests alternatives like “oh, that sounds awful,” or “I can understand why you don’t feel well.”
Don’t expect a sick person to ask for help. Not only do a lot of people have too much pride to ask you for a favor, keep in mind that they are sick — so they probably aren’t even thinking properly. “I had one person ask me why I didn’t ask them for help after I suffered a stroke,” Baron says. “Hello! My brain wasn’t exactly working properly enough to even ask.” Don’t wait for someone to ask you for help. Just show up and do something. Most people aren’t going to call you up and ask for chicken soup, but if you simply bring it to them, they are going to be grateful and will happily slurp it down.
Positive thinking may be powerful, but there is no, absolutely no scientific evidence that your personality or attitude can cure illness. Most pain and symptoms associated with illness are very real, and can’t be cured by thinking on the bright side.
On every social media post where someone discloses a medical condition, these exact words pop up numerous times. Which makes them…a cliché. Sure, some people practice what they preach and will kneel down and say that prayer, but for the majority of those using the phrase, it is just the first thing that comes to mind. While the intention may be there, it can come off as insincere. Try rephrasing your feelings into something a little more personal if you want to let someone know you care about them.
For whatever reason, many people discount invisible illnesses such as fibromyalgia, ADHD or even depression, as being, well, invisible. However, in actuality, they are incredibly real for the people who suffer from them. “People drop everything to support a cancer victim. With chronic illness, we lose friends, family, and credibility, and so often our suffering is much more intense than some cancer patients,” Suzy McCoppin, a journalist who has been battling a chronic illness for almost a decade says. It is not your job to diagnose whether somebody’s medical condition is real or even better or worse than others. To make a comment like this can be hurtful and is simply rude.
In a perfect world, everyone would recover from sickness. However, this has been scientifically proven to be not true billions of times. While you might think that by telling someone that they are going to recover is motivating and uplifting, it is likely they have already done the research and know their prognosis.
It can be frustrating watching a loved one suffer, especially if it seems like they aren’t doing everything you think they can do to help themselves. But never, ever imply that they want to be sick. McCoppin points out that her suffering is far from a nonstop party. “Losing our careers, credibility, looks and spending all of our money on doctors isn’t exactly awesome,” she explains. The only thing worse? Having a friend imply that it is your choice.
How you phrase a question can make such a difference, especially if someone is suffering from a mental health condition. “This question frequently makes an individual feel even more abnormal, as if they are the only one suffering from an ailment,” warns Certified Trauma Specialist Theresa M. Peronace-Onorato, MACP, SAC at Anchor Points Counseling in Huntington Valley, PA. “Often this phrase places blame on the patient assuming they caused a particular condition.” She suggests taking a more supportive and trauma-informed approach, perhaps by gently asking them, “Can you tell me what’s happened to you?” Keep in mind that issues of mental health, and even many physical conditions, are rarely self-inflicted.
Whether somebody needs medication or not isn’t your business, unless of course, you are their doctor. Peronace-Onorato claims that she often hears stories about concerned friends and family members making medication recommendations to their loved ones. “For some patients medication is life changing and greatly increases an individual’s quality of life and daily functioning,” she explains. Similarly, she often hears, “My family member is doing great now. They no longer need their medication.” While this can be true in some cases, such as short-term medication management when grieving a sudden death for example, this isn’t always helpful when a chemical imbalance is present. “In the latter situation, the family members aren’t realizing that their loved one is doing much better because of the medication.”
Of course, everything could be a lot worse, but saying those words isn’t going to make a sick person feel any better. Instead, try using positive affirmations, suggests Bhaswati Bhattacharya, MPH, MD, Ph.D., Clinical Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Say something like, ‘If you focus on the immunity you do have, you can appreciate that you were born with a good strong body, and need to return to that level of strength. You have it in you!”
Commenting on an individual’s weight is rarely a healthy practice, but especially when it is the result of a health condition. Weight loss and gain is a common side effect of many illnesses and medication, and bringing attention to it isn’t going to flatter anyone—it will just remind them of their suffering. If you want to pay them a compliment, rephrase it in a way that really makes them feel good. “Say something like, ‘It is wonderful that you look so great. Having the mental strength that you do really shines through,” suggests Dr. Bhattacharya.
As human beings, we want to be able to make sense out of everything. We often try and remind people that their suffering might have a greater purpose or that it is occurring to teach them a lesson that will make them a better person. However, in the midst of their suffering, most people don’t want or need to be reminded of this. It can also be misinterpreted to mean that they were “meant” to get sick, or even that they deserved it. So save your well-intentioned wisdom for yourself!
You are only trying to help, but keep in mind that many chronic illnesses don’t have a one-size-fits-all cure. While your mother’s, friend’s, cousin’s husband could have been diagnosed with the same ailment as the person you are speaking with, it’s very possibly their symptoms weren’t the same, they were on completely different medications before their diagnosis, or their side effects were drastically different.
You might think you are helping someone keep their mind off their illness, but “it” is happening and being in denial doesn’t help. “It is likely the sick person is thinking about very little else and telling them to the opposite of their reality makes them feel disconnected and shamed,” points out San Diego based therapist and founder of The Relationship Place, Dana McNeil, LMFT.
First of all, you should never tell anyone to “suck” anything up. It’s rude and insensitive. However, when you discount a sick person’s condition it can really hurt. “Having an illness is a scary and makes the person feel vulnerable,” Dr. McNeil points out. “There is nothing to suck up!”
When someone is sick — even if they are suffering from something as simple as the common cold — there’s a good chance they will act out of character. “It’s likely the sick person doesn’t feel like themselves either and pointing out the changes may feel judgmental,” says Dr. McNeil.
The worst thing you can possibly do if a person you care about is sick is nothing at all. Ghosting the person or not checking in on them, can make them feel incredibly isolated. “Check in with the sick person to let them know you are thinking about them and wanting to know how they are doing,” encourages Dr. McNeil. “When we avoid talking about the illness, it gives the other person the impression they may be burdening you with talking about their illness leaving them feeling abandoned or alienated.” And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 70 Things You Should Never Do For Your Health.