What to Say & NOT to Say to a Friend Who is Sick


SUPPOSE YOU’VE JUST FOUND OUT one of your best friends has cancer and isn’t expected to live more than a couple years. You want to be sympathetic and supportive but what do you say to them that will be helpful and not hurtful.

BookCoverFriendWhoIsSickAs Letty Cottin Pogrebin points out in her wonderful new book, How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick, our natural human reaction to this type of news is to “express shock and blurt out some cringe-worthy cliché,” when it might be better to hold back on our feelings and come up with something more appropriate.

Co-founder with Gloria Steinem of Ms. magazine, social activist, author of 10 books and hundreds of articles, Pogrebin recently faced her own mortality when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and successfully treated with lumpectomy and radiation. Her book is based on the tactless expressions of her well-meaning friends, stories of people she knows including family members who have faced serious medical problems and interviews with 80 fellow cancer patients she encountered in the waiting room of the hospital where every day for six weeks she waited her turn for radiation treatment.

If you have a friend who is sick who you really care about, this book is for you. It is chock full of common sense and creative advice that will serve you well.

From the book:

Crude and Insensitive Things not to say

  • “How are you?” People who are sick hate this because they don’t know how to answer it and just saying “fine” is no good.
  • Really? How do they know?” Don’t say this after your friend tells you his surgery went well, and “They got it all.”
  • Wow, you must really have bad karma!” You don’t want to say something like this after learning about a friends misfortune.
  • The definition of minor surgery is surgery done on someone else.” Said to a friend who just informed his buddy that he had “minor surgery.”
  • I can’t believe this happened to you. You always took such good care of yourself.” Remark to a fitness buff who suffered a stroke which only services only as a reminder of what the friend used to be.
  • “I just heard! Tell me everything!” Chirpy voice mail message to friend who just got out of the hospital after colon cancer surgery. The message was never returned.
  • “Wow! A girl in my office just died of that!” shrieked a friend to a friend who was diagnosed with leukemia.
  • “Shouldn’t you be doing more research?” Said to friend whose cancer had spread to his lymph nodes but who wasn’t able to adequately explain what lymph nodes are.
  • Don’t worry, my dad had that surgery years ago and his cancer didn’t come back until he was 80.” You really don’t want to say this to your 70-year-old friend who just had prostate surgery.
  • “Maybe it’s all in your head.” Insensitive remark made to person who just explained her doctors were having a hard time coming up with a diagnoses. Turned out she had Lyme disease.
  • “Isn’t it time you reached closure?” Said to friend suffering PTSD, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and depression after a car accident who just want to talk about what he is experiencing.
  • “You look great!” If you say this to someone who is having chemo, you will make them think they must really look awful.

Hackneyed platitudes and Feel-Good Clichés to Avoid

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “You need to be strong for your kids.”
  • “We’re all in the same boat.”
  • Maybe it happened for the best.”
  • “Everyone dies. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow.”
  • “You’re so brave,” or “You’re so inspiring.”
  • “Just be glad it isn’t worse.”
  • “Chin up.”
  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
  • “My thoughts are with you.”
  • “You don’t deserve this.”
  • “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
  • “God works in mysterious ways.”
  • “He’s in a better place.”
  • “At least she didn’t suffer.”
  • “My sister had a double mastectomy, and she’s climbing mountains.”

Things You can Say

  • “It’s good to see you today.” instead of “How are you?”
  • “What are you feeling?” instead of “How are you feeling.”
  • Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not.”
  • “Tell me if you want to be alone and when you want company.”
  • “Tell me what to bring and when to leave.”
  • “How can I help?” instead of “Can I help?”
  • “What can I do?” instead of “May I do something?
  • “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
  • “I’m here if you want to talk.”
  • Just give me my marching orders.”
  • “That sounds awful; I can’t even imagine the pain.”
  • “I’m bringing dinner.”
  • “You must be desperate for some quiet time. I’ll take your kids on Saturday.”

Note: I first became aware of How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick from a review in The New York Times by Cornelia Dean.

–David Bunnell

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