What to Say When Someone Is Sick With a Serious Health Condition (and Topics to Avoid)

It's difficult to know what to say when someone you care about is suffering. Here's a good list of conversation starters, and the topics to avoid.


When our loved ones are sick, we are desperate to find ways to comfort them. Often, our fumbling attempts at solace fall flat. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you know what to say and do to comfort the sick people in your life.

DON’T ask what you can do to help. Patients don’t want the burden put on them to come up with something you can do. Just do something. This powerful story will convince you to stop saying “Let me know if you need anything.” The dullest tasks can often be the most helpful: cook dinner, clean out the refrigerator, replace the light bulbs, change the oil in their car, take their kids to school, or ask what you can pick up at the grocery store.

DO say, “Do you want me to come over while you wait for test results?”

DO say, “I’m bringing dinner Thursday. Do you want lasagna or chicken?”

DO say, “I have Monday free if you need me to run some errands or take you somewhere.”

DON’T say, “You look great.” Very sick people are aware that their hair is falling out, their skin is covered with sores, or they’ve become skeletal. Mentioning the appearance of a sick person at all just reminds them of how they look.

DO say, “Can I take your kids for a play date? My kids are bored.”

DO say, “Don’t write me back.” All patients get overwhelmed with the burden of keeping everyone informed and feeling appreciated. If you write someone a thoughtful email, say that you don’t expect a reply. If you take the dog for a walk, insist the patient not write a thank you note.

DO say, “I don’t know what to say, but I care about you.”

DO say, “I need to go now.” Most sick people cannot handle long visits. Don’t overstay your welcome. Try visiting for 20 minutes, even less if the patient is tired or in pain. And while you’re there, wash a few dishes, clean the room, and take out the trash when you leave.

DO say, “Would you like to hear some gossip?” When you don’t know what to say, a change of topic goes a long way. Patients are often sick of talking about their illness. Even someone recovering from surgery has an opinion about the senator’s indiscretion, the underdog in the playoffs, or the big election around the corner.

DO say, “Do you just need to vent? I’m all ears!”

DO say, “I really admire how you are handling this. I know it’s difficult.”

DO say, “You are amazing.”

DO say, “I love you.” When all else fails, simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain. It doesn’t need to be fancified. It just needs to be sincere.

Plus: How to Survive a Health Crisis or Chronic Illness

Sources: The New York Times, PsychCentral.com, MSNBC.com, NPR.org, InvisibleIllnessWeek.com

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