If I hadn’t been in the in this position I wouldn’t have known what to say to a friend going through a long-term/chronic illness. It can be hard to find the right words and feel sincere when you really don’t understand how they are feeling.
Sometimes we say things to a friend to comfort and support them in their difficult time when without knowing/realizing, we actually have the opposite impact. We have all been in this situation, sometimes we realize what we have said and try to correct it and other times we assume we have said the right thing. There is no cookie-cutter response when supporting a friend who is struggling. Today I wanted to share some things that have been said to me or to others I know. I believe the intention behind all of these statements was sincere, though it did not come across that way.
Types of comments I have heard and how to word them differently:
Relating temporary pain to chronic illness:
Avoid: “I understand how you feel, I have a really bad ______ “ (insert temporary pain i.e. headache, toothache). The intention behind this statement is good (we assume). The person is trying to show their friend that they also are in pain and know how it feels. In reality it is doing the opposite. It is making the friend with the illness feel more misunderstood and alone, knowing there isn’t a simple fix for their pain.
Try this instead: “I am really sorry you are going through this, it must really suck”. Yes. Yes, it does. Although this person hasn’t been in your situation, it is refreshing to hear that they aren’t pretending to be. You are going through a rough time and they are able to see how challenging it is for you.
Pointing out that they look unwell:
Avoid: “Wow you don’t look well today”. We have all had days where we know we look horrible. When people point this out we all (regardless of health) feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. Again in most cases I think this is a genuine attempt to acknowledge that you are having a hard time, but the wording is not matching the intention. Most likely this person is trying their best to be strong and carry out the expectations of the day. Those with an ongoing illness are always trying the best they can and want to be seen as a person and not their illness.
Better: “Is there anything I can do to help you out today”. When people look like crap, they usually know they do. By asking this question you are acknowledging that you can tell your friend is having a difficult time, without pointing out the obvious.
Best: “Would it be ok if I brought over_____ (supper, coffee, funny movie), so you can have some time to relax tonight?” People struggling with an illness are often quite stubborn (not wanting their illness to get the better of them/ appear ‘weak’) and don’t want to ask for help. If you offer something specific (that they actually need) there may be a better chance that they will accept help as there is less of a burden than there is associated with asking for help. Your friend will be grateful for the much-needed break and can see that you really do care about them, regardless of health challenges.
Assuming they are feeling better based on looks:
Avoid: “Wow you look good today, you must be feeling better”. Hearing this statement can be just as challenging as hearing you look unwell. The intention here is good, your friend is trying to give you a nice complement. If someone was getting over a flu/cold then this statement would be much more appropriate but for someone will an ongoing illness, it creates a disconnect. The problem comes from assuming that a person is feeling good because of how they look. Many people who struggle with chronic illness have an invisible illness. Assuming how someone is feeling based on how they look is something you want to avoid if you have a loved one with chronic illness.
Better: “Wow you look great! How are you feeling today?” Simply removing the assumption can make all the difference in the world. With this statement your friend feels like you really do understand their illness. They will most likely feel comfortable and safe to admit how they are actually feeling, regardless of how they look. Bonus: those with chronic illness often don’t hear that they look “great”, this is such a great confidence boost, even if they feel like hell.
Although I have heard these things, I have been so grateful for all the supportive people in my life. Again I believe that with all the statements above, the intentions were good but the wording created a disconnect.
One of the most powerful statements said to me:
This is something that was said to me by a great friend and is something that I have remembered for a long time: “you are one of the strongest people I know and a fighter, I know it’s hard but you can do this!” My friend texted me this when I was at a very low point and was feeling like nothing could ever get better. At first I was upset, I felt that she didn’t understand how bad things were and she was just trying to be nice. The next day I was able to somewhat break out of the mental ‘funk’ I was in the night before. I re-read her text and realized that my loved ones think I can handle this, and if they think it’s true then maybe I really can. Here are other things I have done when feeling overwhelmed by illness.
None of us ever know the perfect thing to say when we see someone we care about struggling with something. In the moment when you are at a loss for words, try to remember these simple tips.
Tips for supporting a friend with an illness:
- Don’t try to pretend to understand how they feel
- Don’t promise it will get better
- Provide hope and remind them that they have done this before and can do it again
- Let them know that you aren’t going anywhere and they won’t be alone
- Let them know they are loved, regardless of their particular health problem
- Continue to see them as the person you love and not as their illness
- If you don’t know what to say, just be present
Do you have an ongoing illness or have a loved one who does? What is the most comforting thing you have said/heard? How do you show compassion when you are at a loss for words?