When someone you know has a sick loved one, searching for the right words to say can be very difficult. While showing sympathy is vital during this time, many of us struggle to come up with comforting words to say.
Here are some experts’ insights to help us figure out what to say to someone who has a sick family member.
Alexandra Friedmann Finkel, LCSW
Pediatric Oncology Social Worker | Co-Founder and Therapist at Kind Minds Therapy
When speaking with someone who has a sick family member, people may feel pressure to say the “right” thing. This often leads to people feeling overwhelmed and intimidated, and in some cases, causes them to avoid saying something altogether.
This leaves the person with the sick family member not only with the burden of caring for that family member but also with more and more feelings of isolation and abandonment. The most important thing to remember is that what to say depends on who the individual is that needs support.
Think about who the audience is. Is it a co-worker? A best friend? A partner? Keep the individual in mind. No matter who it may be, these are some tips to help show you care:
Start by simply asking how he/she is
You can say, “I know that your [family member] is sick. How are you doing with everything?”.
Let the response guide your conversation. Creating space to allow someone to actually speak about the challenges they are experiencing by having a sick family member is much more powerful than anything generic. Letting him/her know that it’s okay to feel that way and that you here to listen can help tremendously.
Explore what it’s like for him/her to have a sick family member
Ask open-ended questions, suspending judgment or advice, such as “It seems like it must be really hard to be going through [family member’s illness]. What has it been like for you?”
Most people want to feel validated, heard, understood, and listened to. Simply asking this question and echoing back the feelings that you hear can show the person that you truly care.
Ask the person what would be helpful to him/her
Try something like, “What can I say or do that would be helpful to you?”
Many people, if they sense that you are being authentic and want to help, will tell you exactly what they need. If they say “I don’t know”, “nothing” or any variation of that, give them examples of what that could be: grocery shopping, help with childcare, social visit, communicating information to others on their behalf, laundry, a phone call/video chat, sending uplifting messages, etc.
People who are caring for a sick family member are often overloaded and may need examples of ways you can help. If they do not want to take you up on your offer, remind them that you are here for them if they need anything and if they think of anything, not to hesitate to reach out to you.
Follow up; more than one conversation is likely not enough
Keep checking in. Showing up and not giving up when it’s hard or uncomfortable sends the message that you can handle the difficult parts of life. Showing up repeatedly communicates that when the person IS ready to accept support, there is someone to turn to (you!).
Shirin Peters, MD
Founder and Medical Director at Bethany Medical Clinic of New York
Say simple yet supportive things
Having an illness in the family can have a big impact on every member of that family, and a new illness can be a source of extreme stress. With a family member in the hospital, people may be juggling an overpacked schedule. When they aren’t at their family member’s bedside, they may be emotionally fragile and anxious. People may not want you to try to comfort them with definites about the unknown such as reassurance that the situation will improve.
But, there are plenty of simple yet supportive things to say even when someone is dealing with a seriously ill family member. Here’s what you should say to him or her. Feel free to make the following suggestions your own.
- Ask instead of telling and let your friend share as much or as little as they would like. “How is everything going – is there anything you can share with me?”
- Be clear that you are available to help. “Let me know if I can help you with anything at all. I want you to be able to give you all my attention where it’s needed.”
- Suggest that you visit.“I know you have a family member in the hospital. Let me know if you need anything. Would it be ok if I visited some time?”
- Think of something to bring to eat, and suggest that instead of asking what they want. It can be too much to make small decisions and worry about imposing on others when a family member is ill. “Would you mind if I brought over some lunch or a fruit bowl?”
- Offer to transport things – often people are unprepared for stays at the hospital with their loved ones and the logistics of getting what they need is one thing it would help to offload “If you need me to pick things up and bring them to the hospital for you while you’re visiting, I can do that. Just let me know.”
- Be an open ear. “Let me know if you ever want to talk. I’m here to listen.”
- Tell the person they are top of mind for you. “I’ll be thinking about you, and please ask if you need anything at all. I’d really like to help.”
Dr. Clinton Moore
Clinical Psychologist | Founder, Cadence Psychology
The number one rule is don’t try to fix it
When talking to someone that has a sick family member, the number one rule is don’t try to fix it. Our instinct is always to try and make people feel better, which leads us to reassurance sentences like “they’ll be fine, don’t worry.” At its best, reassurance will only offer a temporary boost for someone before reality comes back.
The problem is that reassurance can often feel invalidating if you’re on the receiving end and haven’t asked for it. It’s a much harder task to practice empathy and try to sit with the person no matter how they’re feeling. Often this can make us feel a little helpless ourselves as we’ve generally been taught across our life that feeling sad isn’t okay.
But to really connect with someone, you’ve got to be willing to get down into the hole with them.
Practically speaking, this could be as simple as saying “that sounds really hard” and giving them a hug. It’s a funny thing, but sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. Just being there with someone can be far more rewarding for everyone involved.
Speaker | Host of Grief Anonymous Podcast | Author, “How Can I Help?: Your Go-to Guide For Helping Loved Ones Through Life’s Difficulties“
Ask questions and listen to their answers
When someone has a loved one that is suffering from illness, it can be a very stressful time for everyone involved. Sitting by and watching someone you love suffer is not only heart wrenching, but it also makes you feel so helpless.
You have no control over curing them, but you do have ways of making them feel better by providing comfort, offering encouragement, and simply being there for them. The sitting and waiting, or the round the clock care, can be exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. So when it comes to supporting those who have sick family members, remember it is really no different.
Keep in touch with them either in person, via phone call, texting or social media. Ask how their loved one is doing. Listen. And then ask how they are doing, then listen again. You can pick up clues as to how you can offer support in their answers.
- Are they telling you they are sitting at their bedside hour after hour, while their loved one rests? Then offer to provide them with something to relieve their boredom: an interesting book, an activity book suck as sudoku or crossword puzzles, or a Netflix account to stream shows.
- Are they telling you they are exhausted? Perhaps ask if you can sit with their loved one for a while, so they can go rest or go to the gym to workout.
- Are they telling you they have been spending all their time at the hospital or caring for a sick child or parent? Ask if you can run errands, pick up children from school, or provide meals.
When you ask questions, and then listen to the answers, you will be given the clues as to what to do or say. Sometimes, just a friendly voice, a hug, and lending an ear is the very BEST thing, and the only thing that is really needed.
Mary Sweeney, RN, BSN, CEN, ONN-CG
Registered Nurse | Medical Consultant at Mom Loves Best
Above all, ask them what they need
It’s long been said in healthcare that you must take care of yourself before you can take care of others. That rings true especially in situations like this, and it doesn’t just apply to healthcare workers.
Family members will be caring for loved ones with this virus, there’s no question about it. They haven’t trained for this, and many haven’t physically or mentally prepared. The best things you can say to them are conveyances of your desire to help them in any way possible. Here are some supportive questions and phrases to let them know you care:
- How can I help?
- What do you need?
- Are you okay?
- Do you need to talk?
- Are you taking care of yourself?
- I’m here for you, whatever you need.
More than ever, we need to band together and start thinking about how we can be the best friends, family, neighbors, or just humans. Let’s get through this together, one day at a time.
Former co-caregiver | Author, “Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians“
Remember your own self-care
When family members age and become sick and/or injured, others often step in as caregivers to offer help and support. Serving in this capacity can be draining physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. Feeling heightened responsibility and/or obligation, family caregivers will completely focus their time, energy, and resources on a loved one, yet completely disregard themselves in the process.
As humans, we have our limitations. A lack of self-care will often lead to exhaustion, resentment, anger, stress, and poorer personal health. A caregiver must remain at his/her best to provide the help and support necessary.
As a former co-caregiver for my own aging parents (Mom had Parkinson’s disease and Leukemia while Dad had Alzheimer’s), I learned the power of personal self-care and used walking and writing to help myself cope.
Family caregivers can choose any means of self-care they wish. This can be something that they used to enjoy as a hobby or pastime but feel they do not have the time to do it anymore. Alternatively, it can be something new and they are interested in learning more about it.
It is vital that family caregivers consider personal care a mindset and do something for themselves on a regular basis.
Executive Director of Vineyard Henderson
The most important thing to do is to express sympathy and care
Express your sorrow in hearing the news and tell the individual you will keep him/her and their loved ones in your thoughts or prayers.
If you are able, offer to help the individual. If it’s a neighbor or friend, can you assist with housework, child care, or provide a meal? If it is a coworker, can you help lighten their load and take on some of their work? Difficult and trying times like these are when we, as human beings, have the opportunity to be and do our best and help one another.
Clinical Program Manager, Resility Health
Acknowledge the difficulty they are living with
When someone you know is living with a sick family member finding the right words can be more difficult than expected. This is especially true when their loved one is dealing with a very serious condition or illness.
The very best thing you can do in that instance is to acknowledge the difficulty they are living with. By offering that validation in something as simple as “that must be so difficult for you” or “I am so sorry you and your family are dealing with this” will help them to feel seen and heard.
Resist the urge to give suggestions or offer your opinion. Frankly, it is not what they need from you. What they need more is support and validation in dealing with something so difficult.
Mental Health Columnist, e-counseling.com
Upbeat messages are the best ones to say
“I’m here to help if you need me,”
“I bet that you’d appreciate a break. Let me fill in for a while,”
“How about if I rub those tired shoulders” and similarly, upbeat messages are the best ones to say to an acquaintance with a sick family member.
They will probably be irritated by “Who,” “What,” “How,” “When,” “Why” questions. Their minds are already full of other, competing thoughts. Their emotional and physical energies are already drained. Posing “What’s the diagnosis,” “Did the doctor tell you…” and “How long does s/he have” plus similar questions is rude, upsetting, and invasive. Those questions can make it seem as if you’re giving a test. The nosiness is not nice.
If the caretaker wants to confide in you, she or he will do so. Demanding answers will probably make your listener want to avoid you. You’re not a reporter, so don’t act like one.
Taking care of someone sick is emotionally and physically tiring for caretakers. You need to prove that you respect the person’s dignity and privacy, let alone their physical and emotional limits. That will strengthen their sense of social acceptance plus their trust in you. Some of the thoughts bothering people with sick family members are frightening, hard to answer, and difficult to share.
You can do someone a world of kindness by asking open-ended questions that don’t have right or wrong answers. Ask questions such as “How are you feeling? Want my shoulder to cry on?” or “May I run some errands for you? You need to conserve your energy,” because they invite simple, healing and comforting honesty. Your words demonstrate compassion, not curiosity, safety, not gossipy curiosity.
Let the person know that it’s okay to cry. Normal people need that release from emotional pressure.
There’s a confusion that comes with understanding an illness and medication instructions, new appointment schedules, and feeling tired. Hug the person caring for a sick family member, give tissues, and sigh along when they do. If the sick person has been diagnosed with Coronavirus, though, skip the hugs and replace them with long smiles. Demonstrate your ease with and acceptance of the person’s emotional realities and coping efforts. Send supportive text messages and make warmly worded phone calls from time, too.
Bolster a weary caretaker with praise. Instead of expressing your disappointment that they’re not trying hard enough or doing enough, mention your admiration for what they have accomplished or tried to achieve. If the person needs encouragement, say, “You’re able to do difficult things, I know that.”
The longer that you’re in contact with the person caring for a sick family member, the more insight you’ll gain about what to say and when.. Trust your instincts, and praise yourself for making your compassionate efforts as best you can.
Founder, LLC Formations
Make sure they feel your presence
Sometimes, saying everything will be ok is not enough to comfort someone who is going through pain or who has a sick family member. Make sure they feel your presence. For this, ensure them that you are sorry for whatever they are going through. Ask them, if they need any sort of help and wish that you are waiting for the speedy recovery of the patient.
In the end, you can comfort them saying, “I’ll be praying for you. Let me know if you ever want to talk. I’m here to listen. I know how hard it can be to see a loved one in this situation.”