What To Say Or Not To Say To A Sick Person

You Do Want To Be Consoling When Talking To A Sick Friend Or Loved One…Don’t You?

Have you found yourself in an awkward situation not knowing what to say to your friend or to a loved one who is sick in the hospital?

We go to visit them in the hospital to show them how much we care and that we wish them well.

However, not all the time what we say convey to them that message.

Sometimes we don’t say anything because they may be really ill and we don’t know whether to wish them well or to accept that they might not get better.

One day my son came home from college and told me how he had an experience like this.

My son told me the story of how awkward it was when he walked into the hospital room to visit his college buddy who had had a brain tumor. His buddy had just had surgery that week and he went to the hospital to visit him.

“Mom,” he tells me, “his hair was shaved all off and I could see the stitches. There was a big bubble on his head from the swelling. I didn’t know if the bubble hurt, was it going to burst, or was he in a lot of pain from it. I didn’t know what to say to him as I walked up to his bed.”

So what would be the right thing for you to say in this situation?

Here is an excerpt from an article I read in the New York Times that gives some insightful guidance on what to say and what NOT to say to a sick person.

First, what “NOT” to say to a sick person:

1. WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP? Most patients I know grow to hate this ubiquitous, if heartfelt question because it puts the burden back on them. As Doug Ulman, the chief executive of Livestrong and a three-time cancer survivor, explained: “The patient is never going to tell you. They don’t want to feel vulnerable.” Instead, just do something for the patient. And the more mundane the better, because those are the tasks that add up. Want to be really helpful? Clean out my fridge, replace my light bulbs, unpot my dead plants, change my oil.

2. MY THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS ARE WITH YOU. In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice. Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. But the majority of people who say they’re sending “thoughts and prayers” are just falling back on a mindless cliché. It’s time to retire this hackneyed expression to the final resting place of platitudes, alongside “I’m stepping down to spend more time with my family,” or “It’s not you, it’s me.”

3. DID YOU TRY THAT MANGO COLONIC I RECOMMENDED? I was stunned by the number of friends and strangers alike who inundated me with tips for miracle tonics, Chinese herbs or Swedish visualization exercises. At times, my in-box was like a Grand Ole Opry lineup of 1940s Appalachian black-magic potions. “If you put tumeric under your fingernails, and pepper on your neck, and take a grapefruit shower, you’ll feel better. It cured my Uncle Louie.”

5. HOW ARE WE TODAY? Every adult patient I know complains about being infantilized. The writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who had breast cancer, is working on a book, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.” It includes a list of “no-no’s” that treat ailing grown-ups like children. When the adult patient has living parents, as I did, many mothers in particular fall back on old patterns, from overstepping their boundaries to making bologna sandwiches when the patient hasn’t eaten them since childhood. “Just because someone is dealing with a physical illness,” Mr. Ulman said, “doesn’t diminish their mental capacity.”

6. YOU LOOK GREAT. Nice try, but patients can see right through this chestnut. We know we’re gaunt, our hair is falling out in clumps, our colostomy bag needs emptying. The only thing this hollow expression conveys is that you’re focusing on how we appear. “When people comment on my appearance,” Ms. Linn said, “it reminds me that I don’t look good.”

Next time you want to compliment a patient’s appearance, keep this in mind: Vanity is the only part of the human anatomy that is immune to cancer.


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