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What to Say When Someone Tells You They're Chronically Ill

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When someone tells you they have a chronic illness, the usual responses of “get well soon!” or “I hope you feel better!” aren’t really appropriate. Here are some tips on how to respond with thought and care, without being awkward or Hallmark-y about it.

1. Do ask questions, but don’t get too personal.

Whether you’ve heard of their illness or not, asking questions is a great way to show interest and to reassure your friend they’re not being burdensome or sharing too much with you. Opening up about something as personal and intimate about one’s body (and mind) takes a lot of courage, so you want to be responsive to them.

When I say “don’t get too personal” what I really mean is to let the sharer set the pace of how personal they want to get. Asking questions and responding supportively may lead them to feel comfortable getting into the nitty gritty of the workings of their bowels or whatever it is, or they may stick to broader topics like pain or diet. But it’s important to let them lead the way. Some examples of good questions to ask: “How long have you been dealing with this?” “How does this affect you day-to-day?” “How can I be more mindful of this and help you?” “Do you have a doctor you like?” “How are you feeling right now?” And of course, if you’re not sure what to ask, you can always go with: “Tell me more about it!”

2. Be careful making jokes.

I’m the kind of person who defaults to humor, especially to diffuse tension. You may feel awkward when someone tells you about their illness, especially if it has something to do with lady parts, like endometriosis or PCOS. The person confiding in you probably feels more tension than you do. But jokes have to hit just right, or else you risk making the person feel invalidated or hurt. A good rule of thumb is that if the person sharing makes a joke, you can make similar jokes to theirs. Never joke at the sharer’s expense, and if there’s a way to joke at your own expense that’s usually much safer. Another target? The system. Jokes about healthcare or doctors might be a welcome sign of understanding.

3. Share your experiences.

Sometimes you may feel like sharing your own story or stories about friends and loved ones with similar struggles may feel like you’re making the conversation all about yourself but I promise it’s not. Showing knowledge and experience can put your friend more at ease, and make them feel more open to sharing more with you. You should, however, be especially attentive if they point out that what they are experiencing is different than what your great aunt experienced, or that those two diseases are really not very similar. Affirm this, and show a genuine interest in the explanation. Never try to explain their own illness to them.

4. Do not try to fix them.

Your friend lives in the same world you do. They’ve heard of yoga and essential oils and the Paleo diet. Now is not the time to convince them Big Pharma is a scam. They have a diagnosis, they are seeing a medical professional and odds are they have tried many, many things. Chronic illnesses are usually not curable. They are not telling you this to get medical advice. They want understanding, empathy and to know you love them anyway. If you have shared that you know someone with the same illness, do not share their miracle homeopathic experience. If your friend asks what your step-grandmother did about her illness, you can share. But don’t preach. If you personally have the exact same illness, you can share advice. If you personally have a different chronic illness, tell them, and again, if they ask what you do, you can share. Just don’t try to fix them.

5. State the obvious.

It may seem like “duh” to say things like, “That must be really hard,” or, “I’m sorry you have to deal with that,” or even just, “That really blows, man, I’m so sorry,” but these are things that are extremely affirming and validating to a person with an illness. Believe me. You don’t know how often we hear, “That doesn’t sound so bad.” We need to hear that our struggle is real. So go ahead and say, “That sucks.” Because it does, and we’re glad you understand.

What are some of your ideas for things to say when a friend shares their illness with you? Fellow spoonies, what are some of the best responses you’ve gotten when you talked to someone about your illness?

I leave you with one last bonus one, which can be a kind way to follow up or end messages with your friend: Be AWAP (Be As Well As Possible).

Getty image via MangoStar_Studio

Originally published: July 31, 2019
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