I just finished writing a birthday card to my sister Carina, who is going through, in my opinion, one of the most difficult trials a person can experience in life. This year, her birthday will not be like what she had expected. Rather than celebrating, probably at a nice restaurant with her husband and her precious 3-year-old son, she is on strict bed rest, only able to get up to use the restroom and not even able to sit up for too long.
What do you say to someone like her? Someone who is going through physical and emotional pain? What do you write on that birthday or get well card? Or, another question would be: what do you not write or say?
As someone who has a chronic illness and often battles her own discouraging thoughts and emotions, I have been a recipient of many comforting and thoughtful messages from friends, family members, and mentors. These messages have carried me through many trying days of fatigue and pain. However, I have also been a recipient of words that were less than thought-through – words that were (usually) well-meaning, but ultimately were hurtful rather than helpful.
I do not hold these words against the people who spoke them. In fact, I thank them for attempting to aid me in dark times. The fact is that, if one has not been through a physical trial, it is impossible to truly empathize, and, as a result, trying to give comfort can end up having the opposite effect.
Maybe you have experienced what I have experienced. Maybe you are currently in the midst of a physical trial like my sister.
Or maybe you are on the other side of things, knowing someone who is dealing with health issues and wanting desperately to bring comfort and peace. However, as I implied earlier, words can be tricky, and you may not know what to say. While I am not an expert counselor and I definitely have not had a perfect record when it comes to saying the right things, I have been on the receiving end of both uplifting and not-so-uplifting words during my continuous struggle with my diseases. Therefore, I would like to help you come up with the appropriate words to say by giving you three general categories of what not to say to someone who’s sick.
Comments on Changes in Appearance/Lifestyle
When I was diagnosed with lupus in 8th grade, I had to take a medicine that made me gain weight. I literally swelled up, especially around my face. By the time my first semester of high school began, I became almost unrecognizable to my classmates who I had not seen all summer. Most people just took a few seconds to overcome their initial shock. There was that one boy, however, that shouted, “That’s Ophy?!”; and there was that one lady that asked, “Did you gain weight?!”…=p You might be thinking, “I would never be that obvious or rude.” And you are probably right, so here’s another example.
One of the symptoms of lupus is sun sensitivity, so I often carry an umbrella when I am outdoors. I cannot count the number of times people have said to me, “Haha, you expecting rain?” Now, they probably did not mean to make fun and were just curious as to why I would be using an umbrella in sunny 92° weather. In fact, most of these people didn’t know that UV rays made me sick. However, it is careless comments like these that make it really difficult for someone to not feel alone and even discontent.
Rather than making needless comments on changes in appearance or lifestyle, first determine whether or not it is wise to say anything at all. Consider to whom you are addressing. Is he/she a good friend with whom you can talk about sensitive and personal issues or is he/she just an acquaintance? Also, ask yourself, “Would my comments be made out of a concern for this person or out of my own curiosity?” If it is the latter, then it is best to not say anything.
Medical/Lifestyle Advice to “Fix” the Problem
I am sure we can all relate with the desire to fix a problem when we see it. However, when it comes to health issues, it is easy to make suggestions or provide advice that are, quite frankly, unwanted and unhelpful. For those of us who are sick, we know our physical limits and what we need to do to take care of ourselves (whether or not we actually do it is another matter), so comments like, “Make sure you get your rest” or “Try not to be too stressed” can be superfluous and wearisome. Again, we understand that these statements are well-meaning, but the way they are said and the type of relationship one has with the sick person matter.
Furthermore, suggestions of alternative medicine and lifestyles can also be vexing. There are so many alternative treatments and lifestyles, it is hard to keep track. Your sick friend may or may not be ready to make such major changes. He/she may also have tried so many of these other options without success that the thought of yet another change can be discouraging. The best and only time to propose a different type of treatment or way of life is if you have personally and successfully tried it yourself. If you can personally testify to its effectiveness and, in addition, are willing to take the time to support and guide your friend through this major change, then, by all means, provide the applicable information. Just keep in mind that not everyone is willing or ready to do what you have done.
Trite Spiritual Remarks
As Christians, it is a joy and a comfort to be able to turn to biblical truths for support and guidance, and we often need a brother or sister to point us to those truths. This is particular true in life’s most distressing moments. However, we all need to be careful with exactly what we say and how we say it when attempting to present Scripture to a suffering person. Off-the-cuff remarks like, “Trust in God” and “God is with you” can be stale and even frustrating for people who know these truths in their head but are still laboring to reconcile them with their condition in their heart.
An example of a time when I was blessed by someone bringing me spiritual truth was the day I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I was overwhelmed with the fact that I had to deal with a second illness. My friend and mentor called. She asked if we could read through Scripture together, so she read various psalms while I cried. She recognized that she couldn’t know how I felt but that she wanted to pray for me. There were no trite spiritual remarks. Her reading Scripture, praying for me, and letting me know that she was available whenever I needed someone to talk to were the actions that helped get me through that day. Not only that, she followed through with her promise and visited with me on a day that I was feeling particularly unwell.
I pray that by writing this post, I have given you some insight into the heart of someone who is sick and how to help them. It has been the most difficult post for me to write thus far, because of how I had to deal with my own hurt feelings and struggles in the past. It is easy for me and others who are sick to feel bitter or angry towards those who have been careless with their words, but I know that God’s grace covers us all; and He has given me those specific interactions so that others may learn to use their words more purposefully when speaking to those who are ill.
I praise God for you, friends and family, who have the desire to encourage the fainthearted and to help the weak. It is through you that God gives us, who are suffering, the strength to persevere and ultimately overcome our hardship. Thank you.