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How to Talk to a Friend Who is Struggling with a long term illness. Chronic illness friend.

How to Talk to a Friend Who’s Struggling with Illness

How to Talk to a Friend Who is Struggling with a long term illness. www.paintedteacup.comIf 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:

  1. Don’t try to pretend to understand how they feel
  2. Don’t promise it will get better
  3. Provide hope and remind them that they have done this before and can do it again
  4. Let them know that you aren’t going anywhere and they won’t be alone
  5. Let them know they are loved, regardless of their particular health problem
  6. Continue to see them as the person you love and not as their illness
  7. If you don’t know what to say, just be present

Friendship quote. How to talk to a friend who's struggling with illness.


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?


72 thoughts on “How to Talk to a Friend Who’s Struggling with Illness”

  1. These are really important reminders. I think the last thing any of us wants is to offend someone who is not feeling well.

  2. Thanks for these great tips. I think often we’re trying to help but we end up making things worse by the way we say things and this is a great reminder to think through our words when talking to someone who is already feeling bad enough.

  3. These are great pointers. Thanks for sharing these. I am very cautious when talking to someone who is suffering because I know they can be super sensitive.

  4. absolutely love these tips! So thoughtful and detailed. Ive had quite a few friends with cancer and I think the best is always to be there for them, show support and let them know they can count on you.
    Dee T @HauteFrugalista

  5. I think that people often underestimate the power of being present. We are so programmed to find a solution to problems, and we are so uncomfortable when we can’t fix “it” right away. There is a lot of help provided in just being present with someone, whether or not they are facing illness.

  6. I heard somewhere recently that we shouldn’t refer to a friend’s illness as a “journey”.
    After thinking about that I realized it really is insensitive, and then I thought there must be dozens of other ways to speak more compassionately to our ill friends. So glad you brought up this subject.

  7. These are great tips! It can be so hard to tell if what you said is a good or bad thing. I have several friends who have chronic illness and are cancer survivors and this is spot on with what they say.

  8. I’ve been in this position way to many times with friends and family. Thank you for the tips they are very helpful.

  9. It is very difficult to know what to say to some one who is hurting either mentally or physically. I generally preface any statement with “I know I don’t know what you are really feeling but I am here if you want to talk.”

  10. My mom is the one who has chronic illness in the our family. She looks so tired and stress every day now and it’s sad to see how she’s going through the health situation. That’s why we always are more positive to support her.

  11. It’s so hard to know what to do for people who are suffering from an illness or who have a family member who is very sick. This was such a helpful post, thank you.

  12. These are great tips – I’ve already informed my children that I’m not going to tell them if I ever have a chronic illness because I don’t want them to treat me differently and I know they would.

  13. This is an excellent post. My sister has Moyamoya and many people say the dumbest or less educated things to her. But I have to say through education from programs like Special Olympics and The Make a Wish Program many people are now more fully aware of what to say and how to say it. Before she would be made fun of for ridiculous reasons. I think posts like this educate people on what is more important. Nothing you have compares to the constant pain that some people are in.

  14. I think this is very difficult for many of us. Although, I haven’t had friends sick I did have relatives and I often found myself staying away in fear that I would say and treat them in a way that would make them feel worst about their illness. Many times we say things like we understand what they are going through not because we do but we want them to know that we empathize and it sucks when you mean well but hurt them in the process.

  15. Unfortunately, we all in life will deal with some type of sickness. I like that you have ways to deal with some who deals with an illness that is chronic. I think understanding what a person is going through will allows to respond to them in a manner that is appropriate to them and their situation.

  16. I can identify with the “I know how you feel …..” comment. I’ve had it said to me and unfortunately, I’ve said it to others. But after just going through a bout with cancer, I can definitely say that the last thing you want to hear is someone comparing their tennis elbow to your mastectomy pain!

  17. I would never point out that they don’t look well that would be so rude unless I didn’t know that they were sick. I think for me I am the crazy friend so they would only call me if they need a good laugh.

  18. Thank you for sharing these. One of my best friend’s (from college) daughter is dealing with what will most likely be the final stages of cancer. It is difficult to know how to ask her how she is doing. This is helpful. Thanks!

  19. I think this is such an amazing post! I am lucky enough that I don’t have any friends or family members that are sick. I am more than lucky, I am blessed! =D These are great tips. It can be a tough situation to be in though and its truly important to think before we speak. Thank you for sharing!

  20. I was going through a rough time awhile back. It was obvious what my family needed. All we received was the “let us know if you need anything” statement. Like you said, it’s too hard to ask people for anything. Who wants to look like a mooch.

  21. Thanks so much for sharing! I always try to just be there and not say a thing to a friend going through something. Sometimes worse can hurt when its unintentional.

  22. Thank you for these. I’ve said some of the “no” statements and reading it now, yes it was insensitive. It’s hard to know what exactly to say without offending or sounding awkward. Showing empathy and compassion to your friend or family during these time is most important.

  23. These are some really great tips. I’ve been lucky to have a mom who’s really great at helping people around us who get sick. I’ve watched her always take care of those people, and I’m hoping it rubs off, so that when people around me need me that way, I’ll remember what she’s taught me.

  24. These are such important reminders – and great tips on what to say,what not to say. I think the one that stood out to me was not telling someone you know how they feel. It almost takes that away from them – because you don’t know how a person feels. Great article.

  25. These are great tips! A friend of mine’s mother passe away recently and although we are always straight-forward and candid with each other if was very difficult to know what to say in that situation.

  26. Thank you so much for sharing your tips! Sometimes I don’t know how to say things to someone ill because I’m afraid I might offend them, but I’m definitely keeping these in mind.

  27. I don’t know anybody who have an ongoing illness, but this reminds me of my late husband. He was ill for 2 years before he passed. We got all the support from family and friends which made things a little better.

  28. These are excellent points. As someone with chronic pain, these types of statements are very frustrating.

  29. Great reminders! Especially the first one – I always hate when someone tries to compare their own ailment to mine. Just doesn’t do anything to make someone feel better. Thanks for sharing these great tips.

  30. These are great suggestions for communicating with chronically ill friends and family. It’s amazing how insensitive are questions and comments sound some times. Thanks for sharing your post at the #AnythingGoes Link Party.

  31. What great tips, it’s hard to know what to say in times of crisis and I think most people come from a good place when they are trying to comfort you. This really helps though. I love the first tip, because you can’t imagine what they are going through but you can show you sympathize.

  32. These are great tips. Sometimes people dont mean any harm, they just don’t know any better. This gives them tips on what they should say, not just what they shouldn’t say.

  33. great tips! I dont necessarily think people are trying to be insensitive I think people arent taking a moment to filter the words before the come out of their mouth! Your words are much nicer and show you care:)

  34. These tips are so valuable! i have spent time with several family members and friends with mental illnesses so thanks for sharing How to Talk to a Friend Who’s Struggling with Illness with us on the Healthy Happy Green and Natural Party Blog Hop. I’m pinning and sharing.

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