8 Things NOT to Say to a Sick Person

Have you ever had a well-meaning friend or relative say the wrong thing when you most needed compassion?  Or are you a healthy person who wants to help but has no idea what to say?  Listen up.  Here are the top 8 things not to say to a sick person:

1.  Don’t say you’re tired/in pain.  When people ask me how I’m feeling and I say I’m tired, I’m told, “Don’t say you’re tired because you’ll become tired.”  UnknownThis simply is not logical.  If it’s 100° out, saying it’s hot does not make it hot.  I don’t dictate the weather by what I say; it’s just a fact that it’s hot much like it’s a fact that  illnesses like autoimmune diseases and cancer make a person tired.  Likewise, saying I’m in pain doesn’t create the pain–my four diseases did that.

2.  Maybe if you had more faith, God would heal you.  Having trials in one’s life does not  mean the person in pain has no faith.  In the Bible, Job was honest with God about all his trials and God considered him an upright man.  Many people I’ve lost to cancer were some of the most devout Christians I’ve ever known.  In fact, I think my faith in God has grown stronger in illness because I see the supernatural strength and resolve He has given me.

3.  What were you doing before you got sick?  Were you exercising?  What were you eating?  What size were you?  These questions imply that complex issues like life-threatening illnesses can be reduced to karma.  It’s implying that sick people did this to themselves.  Before I got Myasthenia Gravis, I was doing yoga five days a week.  I didn’t drink; I never even smoked a cigarette in my life.  Healthy living is important for everyone but it does not guarantee a life without illness.

4.  If you were more positive,  you would get better.  Obviously thinking negative thoughts doesn’t make things better.  But there are many optimistic people I’ve known who have lost their battles to cancer.  Sometimes people say things like this because we want to think that such awful trials will never enter our lives as if our fate was completely determined by our actions.

5.  Why can’t you do ______________?  Being chronically ill can foster feelings of inadequacy.  Sometimes we can subconsciously hold the sick person to standards of productivity or strength he/she had before getting sick.  Sickness can make little things (driving, chores) and big things (hobbies, sports) difficult.  Chastising a person for not being able to live up to set standards exacerbates low self-esteem.

6.  I miss your [long hair/skinny figure/breasts/insert other physical feature here].  Guess what?  Sick people own mirrors.  We know when we’re bald.  We know when we’ve gained weight.  There are times when I’m exercising regularly and eating right but still gaining weight because of Prednisone.  My cousin, who survived Hodgkins Lymphoma twice, told me that during chemotherapy, many people would say, “You’re bald!”

7.  I know exactly how you feel.  If you’ve ever had a serious illness, it’s fine to say this.  But I don’t like it when people compare a flu (that lasted all of two weeks) to my condition.  Being in pain and tired for five years is not the same.  My friend, “J,” who lost half her family to Huntington’s, was once asked what it’s like to live with that disease.  She responded, “Imagine the sickest you’ve ever been in your life.  Ever.  The flu, food poisoning, whatever.  Now multiply that by 100 and do it all day everyday for the rest of your life.  That’s what it’s like to live with chronic illness.”

 8.  Life sucks and then you die.  If you’re tempted to say this, please don’t volunteer for a suicide hotline.  I have a well-meaning friend who says the most pessimistic things when circumstances are at their bleakest.  If you’re a sick person with a friend like this, don’t call him or her for help.

What should I say?

You might be thinking to yourself, is there anything left to say?  You can say things like, “I’m sorry for your pain” or “I’m praying for you.”  Some of my non-religious friends say things like, “I’m sending you positive thoughts.”  You can ask how you can help.  Oftentimes listening is the best thing we can do.  My five-year old nephew, Mikko, sometimes sits by me and puts his arm on my shoulder.  Even when I’m not crying, he knows I’m in pain and he sits there in silence with me.

–Your Stylist,  Jessica Gimeno

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Hi there! I am a patient advocate, writer, and public speaker most well known for my TEDx Talk, “How to Get Stuff Done When You Are Depressed.” As someone who is juggling 5 illnesses: bipolar 2, myasthenia gravis, endometriosis, psoriasis, and asthma, I’m passionate about helping people who navigate life with both chronic physical & emotional pain. If you’re interested in hiring me to speak at your event, check out the CONTACT tab.

6 thoughts on “8 Things NOT to Say to a Sick Person

  • August 19, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Nice article and true how people don’t always say the right things to you. It is hard enough finding our own balance between trying to live as normally as possible and recognizing we are sick that we can think for ourselves.

    I do however always keep in mind that people giving these responses either don’t know any better or have the best intentions but just don’t find the right words to share it.

    I like your positive attitude and having found a purpose in life even while being sick. With having lupus I feel that a lot like you helping people is what keeps me going sometimes.

    Keep walking that path with faith and gratitude.
    Life Balance coach and lupus girl.

    • March 6, 2014 at 10:56 am

      Thanks, Steffie, for your insight. I wanted to include a link to your website (on my “Blogs I Read” Page). But I can’t access it through the link above. 🙁

  • March 6, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Great blog. Thanks for sharing. A thought of mine is this. Agreed, it’s not okay to say, “Life sucks, then you die.” or similar statements. But, I believe it’s okay to say, “Cancer sucks!” Or “It really sucks that you got MS!” I believe that these types of statements, at least for myself, helps give validity to what someone is suffering through. Your thpughts? 🙂

    • March 6, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      Oh I agree with you! MS sucks. Cancer sucks. I think that’s fine. I was referring more to Debbie Downers, people who see the worst in life and make you feel more terrible than you do. I blogged more about that concept here (with a clip from SNL): http://jessicagimeno.com/?p=1664
      Ellen, I’m glad you like the blog.

  • June 21, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    One of the worst things ever said to me was, “what? You’re not dying. You’ve been saying you’re dying for years & you’re still here!”. Apparently, my managing to not die yet proves that I’m just exaggerating the severity of my condition, so I guess I’ll have to die first to be credible??(!) I have grade Iii/iv congestive heart failure w/ an ef of 15%. If I wasn’t at such a physiological disadvantage, I would’ve clocked him a good one for his insensitivity & a few more for his refusal to even learn something about my condition & being the know it all older brother who doesn’t know squat 😉

    • June 21, 2015 at 5:39 pm

      That’s terrible that your brother said that to you! Thank you for sharing.


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