10 Things To Say To Someone Who Is Chronically Ill

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  1. It’s great to see you!
  2. You look happy!
  3. Can I help you with anything now/today/tomorrow/this week?
  4. How is school/work/hobby/anything not specifically health-related going?
  5. Let me bring dinner over this week. What do you like?
  6. I’m going to the __________. Anything you need?
  7. Want to hang out this week? I can just come over and color with you, even. And it’s fine if you need to cancel.
  8. Thank you for coming!
  9. How about this crazy weather?
  10. Do you want to hear a funny story?

When faced with someone who is sick, it’s really fantastically hard to know what to say. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be such a booming business in greeting cards! It’s difficult. We get it. And the sicker I get, the more innocent little phrases become inky-black shards, cutting deep and staining. “It’s wonderful to see you today! makes me wince at all the other todays I should have been there for, even though that wasn’t at all what the speaker intended at all.  “Get better soon!” A command that I couldn’t ever hope to obey, no matter how much I desperately wish. “You look like you’re feeling better!” is a perennial favorite of the chronically ill, because we rarely are much improved. Instead, like Cinderella, we’ve become so transformed by clothes and some fairy-godmother-worthy magic with makeup and hair that we aren’t recognizable as “sick” to friends and colleagues. Presuming, of course, that the illness was even visibly recognizable in the first place. “You’re too young for this,” “you are too fat/skinny,” and “you should just try harder and you’ll be fine,” are all quite horrendous enough that there really shouldn’t be anything acceptable about saying those to anyone, anyway.

Instead of the continuing with the list of “don’ts!”, here is a list of “do’s.” Just saying it’s great to see someone can also be guilt-inducing, but there has to be some adaptations and acceptance on my part. I have to accept that I am sensitive, and to bury my guilt over what I can’t change – my illness – until like most things buried, it transforms into fertile ground for the growth of something greater. Telling someone they look happy is just about as bad as “you look like you’re feeling better,” depending on what war your friend is fighting. Someone in the depths of depression can sometimes manage to look happy, just like I sometimes manage to look like I’m feeling better. But I personally have a horrible poker face, so if I look happy, I probably am… and it’s important to recognize that just because someone’s chronically ill doesn’t mean they’re not also going to be happy sometimes and would like to tell you why. I like to hear funny stories, and sometimes genteel conversation about neutral subjects – pets, weather, gardens – is just what I need. Trust me, I don’t like to always be talking about my health. Thanking someone for coming is just good manners, whether or not a person is ill, but this can also be a sort of acknowledgement of the extra effort it might take me to attend an event and how important that means it is (and by extension, who is hosting is) to me. I’d love it if my friends would come over and just play a few rounds of Uno with me when I’m down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been rescued by someone asking if I needed anything from a store. Taking someone meals is harder, to be sure, but once again, having someone take the time to handle that, especially on days when I’m really ill or recovering from a procedure, means the world.

I’d never have learned all these phrases unless someone had tried them out one me. Tentatively at first, then with growing confidence, they persisted, and I learned that not all comments sliced like glass. Thank you to all those who dared to care! May your experiments in kindness never fail.

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