4 Ways to Better Respond to Your Friend With a Chronic Illness

Whether an old friend gets a new diagnosis or a new friend tells you about their illness, finding the right words can be difficult. You may be thinking that you want to be supportive but just aren’t sure how. I have felt the same way in your position before, and I also know what it is like to talk to friends about my own chronic illness. I have listed four common responses chronically ill people get from their friends and have suggested better, more supportive things to say.

1. Instead of: “Oh, wow, I’ve never heard of that.”

Try saying: “Do you know of a good website where I can read about that? I want to try to understand what you’re dealing with.”

Chronic illness can be very isolating, especially when the illness is unheard of or misunderstood. I feel so loved when someone mentions that they read about one of my illnesses (from a reputable source!), because it shows that they were thinking of me and can understand the impact the illness has on my life.

2. Instead of: “I heard about this therapy, medication, supplement, diet, or exercise you should do.”

Go with: “I hope you find the treatment and help that is right for you.”

While it is great to be informed about your friend’s chronic illness, offering advice they did not ask for might not be the best idea. They may be overwhelmed already by a ton of advice and by the number of medical professionals involved in their life, and your role as their supportive friend (and not their doctor) is important.

3. Instead of: “Stay positive,” or, “Keep the faith.”

You friend might rather hear: “That sounds tough, and I’m glad you know you can talk to me about it.”

Chances are, your friend is already working really hard to maintain a healthy perspective of their life with chronic illness. Reminding them to keep a good attitude can seem belittling, and it may make them feel guilty for talking to you about their struggle. Simply letting them know that you are open to listening can be the most helpful thing possible.

4. Instead of: “I wish you could come out more often.”

You could say: “I understand why you can’t get out sometimes. I would be happy to come over and watch Netflix if you’re ever feeling up to it.”

Personally, I have experienced guilt when turning down an invitation or canceling plans because of my illness. When a friend says they are disappointed that I am unable to go out, even if what they mean is that they will miss me, I sometimes worry that I am a disappointment to them. Many others feel similar guilt, so when a chronically ill friend can’t come out, please let them know that you understand that they are not just being flaky. Depending on your friend’s situation, you might be able to make different plans with them, such as going to a quiet coffee shop instead of a crowded restaurant, or staying at home to watch a movie instead of going to the theater. Still, your friend’s illness may not allow them to hang out at all, and it is important that they have your understanding.

Every person with a chronic illness has a unique experience, and one person may not have all of the same limitations and symptoms as someone else with the same diagnosis. The key thing is to try to understand what your individual friend is facing. Not everyone will agree with my suggestions here, but if you don’t know what else to say, these ideas are a good place to start.

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