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To Friends and Family Who Aren't Sure What to Say to Loved Ones With Chronic Illness

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When someone gets sick, friends, family and co-workers often may not know what to say. They’re scared they’re going to say the wrong thing, make someone cry, or commit some sort of faux pas. It’s a tricky subject, but I promise it can be worth it to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Both you and your loved one may be better for it.

The thing is, getting a diagnosis can feel similar to grief. How one person reacts is probably going to be different from how someone else reacts to the exact same diagnosis. Through not one, but two scary diagnoses, here’s what I’ve seen work best in these situations.

1. Do acknowledge it. If it’s going to be the elephant in the room, you might as well talk about it. It’s probably one of the biggest things we’re thinking about anyways, so it means a lot when you take an interest. 

2. Along those lines, do ask questions. A question about a diagnosis isn’t likely to break us. We’ve probably thought about every scenario and asked the same questions to our medical team. It’s usually not an untouchable issue. I promise.

3. Do offer help. And by help, I mean most of us are really stubborn when it comes to letting you know if we need something. If you say, “I’m here if you need anything,” we’re probably not going to ask for help. We’re just not. Try offering tangible ways to help like: “Can I bring you dinner tonight?” “Can I drive you to/from treatment?” “Do you want someone to come watch Netflix with you?”

4. Don’t try to offer unsolicited advice, especially when it comes to treatment plans. This includes: “Well, have you tried…” “You just need to…” “I have a friend that did XYZ and now he/she is back to normal life!” We have a team of doctors helping with that. 

5. Don’t say things like “But I thought you were getting better…?” or “But you don’t look sick?” or “You look great, you must be feeling better!” When living with a serious illness, you learn to try to live as normally as possible, and each day is usually different. Just because I put on makeup and curled my hair does not mean I am healed.

6. Do show up. The biggest thing you need to do is just be present — you don’t need to worry about saying the right or wrong things or feel like you’re walking on eggshells. I have the sweetest memories of friends who would come over and watch TV with me after treatment, and it meant the world. It may seem insignificant to you, but it’ll mean the world to the person that’s sick.

7. Finally, it’s OK to ask how they want to approach this situation! Ask specific questions: “Is this something you want to talk about today?” “How can I best encourage you through this?” “How are you doing, really?” This will help you both avoid any awkwardness about the topic and will help you navigate conversation around it.

Most of all, remember that no good deed, no matter how small, goes unnoticed. My friends who sent me packages, brought over Chipotle, sent me encouraging text messages, and just would sit and cry with me meant the world. You don’t have to be perfect — just be present.

group of four girls hugging
Elise (left) and her friends hugging.

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Originally published: February 6, 2016
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