What to Say to Someone Who’s Very Sick
En español | Whether you’re a family member, friend, coworker or even just an acquaintance of someone grappling with a diagnosis of a terminal illness, it can seem difficult to know what to say or do for them. Here, people who address this reality every day — whether they’re psychologists, chaplains or cancer patients — share advice on what helps, and what doesn’t.
It’s an automatic and well-intended response, but don’t try to reassure a friend or loved one that everything will end up just fine. “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and well-meaning people would say that to me, I’d just stare at them and think, There’s no possible way that we know that,” says Breanna Wicker, area vice president of operations for the home health and hospice company Amedisys and herself a breast cancer survivor.
Suzanne Maxey, a former hospice nurse who is now battling an aggressive breast cancer, says don’t tell someone who is ill that they’ll “beat it.” “That’s ridiculous,” she says. “I’ve been a hospice nurse for years. The type of breast cancer I have — triple negative — comes back sooner or later. And I don’t want to hear about your mother or close friend with stage one breast cancer who is now fine. That’s not what I’m dealing with right now.”
If you’re struggling for a way to say something meaningful, try the following, advises Liwanag Ojala, chief executive officer of CaringBridge, a nonprofit, online social networking site that helps family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during illness: I wish this wasn’t happening to you. This must be hard news for you to share. I’m here for you.
What NOT to Say to Someone Who Is Dying
“Avoid clichés or platitudes,” notes psychiatrist and author Dr. Marcia Sirota. “Saying things like, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and, ‘It’s God’s will,’ can make the person feel like their illness is their fault.”
Remarks like “You’re strong” and “You’ll get through this” are equally problematic. Although it can be tempting to reassure a patient that they will be okay, this approach can be hurtful. Not only do these statements dismiss their feelings and concerns, but they can also seem empty and insensitive. The truth is that they will probably not “get through this” in the usual sense, because they are terminally ill.
“Maybe they don’t feel strong right now and need to feel like they can be afraid,” Dr. Sirota adds. “You need to give them the space they need to share their fears and come to terms with them.”
What NOT to Say to Someone in a Hospice
- Everything happens for a reason – this is both a horrible cliche and very inappropriate for someone facing death. The implication by saying this is that they have done something to cause their own death or deserve it. It could be very upsetting, so don’t say this.
- Don’t give in – after what may have been years of fighting you should respect their decision to stop. You can’t understand how hard it may have been and are in no position to ask them to continue doing so.
- I’m still wishing for a miracle – they have accepted the inevitable and it’s probably for the best you do too. You can keep praying and hooking but when talking to them it’s best to keep it to yourself.
- This is part of God’s plan – if they aren’t religious or don’t have a strong faith then this should absolutely be avoided. But even those who do have faith may be struggling to come to terms with the end of their life. Being told it’s part of a plan they can’t understand won’t be comforting.
But you should be making the effort to reach out and talk to a friend or loved one who has entered a hospice. They will want and need those closest to them at such a difficult time and appreciate you no matter what you say. Just being there is the most important thing.