5 Common Responses to Illness, Dying and Grief That Can Be Hurtful


It can be difficult to know how to respond to those who are ill, dying or grieving. Working in hospice, I’ve learned that due to this discomfort, grieving people may actually be ignored by their coworkers upon returning to work after a death of their spouse… that sick and dying people may have strange, resistant or even overly-optimistic responses from others to their conditions. And through having a life-threatening and rare disease myself (paraganglioma), I’ve had hints of just how much even well-meaning responses and attitudes towards these already difficult circumstances can hurt.

I have compiled some potentially hurtful responses I’ve both experienced and heard frequently and repeatedly from others going through these situations. I’ve also included suggestions of what to do at the end of the article.

1.“You’re gonna beat this thing!”

Although this is a well-intended statement, and some people dealing with illness really appreciate this approach, I think it’s important simply to look to the source of what that implies. To beat something means you win and it loses, which equates illness and dying with failure, that perhaps sickness remains in those who are weak, passive or fearful. I find this to be outright scary in the context of a life that is bound to contract at some point. Dying and illness are already plenty hard from my perspective, even without adding a layer of failure on top of them.

2.“They’re with God now.”

I’ve heard from others who have had particularly tragic deaths of their loved ones that these statements can be the most triggering. I do, however, believe these comments come from a genuine place of trying to make meaning of what’s happening, and wanting something comforting to say.

When someone makes a comment to someone grieving such as, “She’s with God now” or attributes the cause of any horrific thing to a past life, or negative thinking, or whatever their belief system is, it can be hurtful and even feel like an assault. In my opinion, the meaning is really not for anyone else to determine for another, even if it seems clear that the people involved hold a similar belief system. Exploring the meaning of an illness or death is intensely personal and complex.

3.“You’re better now?!”

There’s often an urgency for one to get better, and return back to the “normal,” previous versions of themselves. Yet when it comes to illness, grieving and dying, I’ve never experienced things going quite back to the way they were before. It’s not to say they’ll necessarily be worse; people may have tremendous growth and healing through any of these experiences. Being pressured to go back to what “used to be,” though, is likely impractical and can impose unnecessary pressure and expectation. Friendships can even end over a lack of adapting to these changes.

Also, holding out hope to be better, or acting as if all is good, which is common, can have serious implications for the way we live and spend quality time with one another. Maybe we’re not better, maybe we’re not always going to be OK. Maybe no matter what we do, life is going to fly by way faster than we could ever imagine. Maybe we should proceed as if our time together is incredibly precious.

4. “But you’re so young and healthy?!”

This is response I’ve heard most often when telling others of my illness. Which doesn’t sound terrible — in the past I wouldn’t mind hearing how young and healthy I am — but again, I’d like to explore that auto-response. To me it implies only people who are unhealthy and elderly are vulnerable to getting sick, which isn’t actually true. As sad as it can be, even children get sick and are not immune to dying. This happens everywhere, even in places with the best medical technology and in places that take the most extreme treatment measures. I don’t see that illness and dying discriminate based on someone’s age, or belief structure, or spirituality, or anything else in particular.

5. Offers of a quick fix or “positive thinking” as a cure.

It’s natural that people want to help. We may be used to having an answer or solution, but not everything can be fixed. If someone in a vulnerable moment opens up about their illness, being responded to with a quick solution (like an essential oil, vitamin or healing treatment) can be undermining and even demeaning. Many people become experts on what they have going on. Before offering something, maybe ask first if the person is open to hearing a suggestion.

I’ve heard countless responses from others regarding how guilty and shameful they feel for not being conscious, or positive, or _______ enough to have prevented their sickness. It can also be difficult to share what’s going on with those who don’t want you to use “negative” language, as if talking about the nature of the disease is going to manifest it more. Death, illness and grief are clearly not going anywhere. As hard as they can be, I find it almost eerie to imagine a world in which they didn’t exist.

What to do then?

As uncomfortable as we may be with it, and little credit we may give it, being in that unknown, uncomfortable place with someone may do wonders for a person beyond what you may imagine.

I’d often heard in healthcare how much simply listening is helpful, and while I would often take time to do so, I never really gave it much credit. Being sick has made me understand the level as to which that is true. I didn’t realize the magic of it until I was on the receiving end when I really needed it. Being with a person who is actually being present and willing to listen without trying to fix it with any of the above can be a great gift.

A few more suggestions…

Thank them for opening up to you.

Offer up a good resource if you have one, perhaps a contact you have of someone who has gone through something similar.

Give a reference to a support group that has a good reputation (hospices often have free grief groups).

It’s OK not to know what to say — you can say that.

Offer or just do specific favors: it can be difficult for others to receive help, or it can feel awkward and burdening to suggest specific things, even when asked. Visiting the hospital, dropping a meal by, or offering other comforts on your own accord can be helpful.

Send messages. It doesn’t need to be a deep or poetic message. Just a text or an email that they’ve been on your mind can be incredibly comforting.

The more I interact with people who are living with rare diseases, dying or have had a loved one die, the more I realize that grief, illness and loss are everywhere. By making these parts of life out to be flaws or failures, we may actually fail to truly live and be there for one another.

Feel free to include in the comments below anything you’d like to add from your own experience!

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Thinkstock image by bagotaj


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