What to Say and What Not to Say to a Sick Friend

Reach Out Appropriately

Woman with cold and flu
A woman with a cold and flu.. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

It has happened to most of us. We hear a rumor, or get a call, or find a note posted online which tells us that a friend is sick or injured. Someone we care about has been diagnosed with something difficult — a terminal disease, a lifelong chronic condition or has even suffered a bad accident.

Many patients who have been diagnosed with something difficult report that a dire diagnosis or a bad accident shows them exactly who their friends are.

What they mean is that those who are truly friends don’t shy away from conversations with them, and usually reach out to help. Contrast that outreach with “friends” who say or do nothing.

The problem is, of course, that sometimes we say or do nothing because we don’t know what to say or do! It’s not that we don’t want to be a good friend. It’s that we just don't know how to reach out in a way that will actually help our friend. Unfortunately, that silence comes across as meaning we don’t care, even if that’s not true.

Here are some ideas for you to help you reach out to your friend in a way that will help your friend, and in a way that doesn’t make it as uncomfortable as it might be otherwise.

Do’s for Reaching Out to a Sick Friend

  • Make the Call: Begin with a simple phone call.  “Oh Justine – I heard about your new diagnosis. I am so very sorry to hear it. Just wanted you to know that I would love the opportunity to pitch in, to help out if you can think of a way I can do so.” By making that initial phone call, you are opening the door to further conversation, and you’ve made sure Justine knows that you aren’t dodging her.
  • Suggest Things You Can Do for Your Friend: From there, make some suggestions about things you can do. “I’d be happy to do some shopping for you if you think that would be helpful.” Variations might be that you can pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, or walk her dog, or take the trash out next week. She may very well say “no thanks” to begin with, but she’ll remember your suggestions and after some time has passed, she may tap you to help out.
  • Offer to Set Up a Patient Website: These are websites that keep everyone who is interested informed and prevent her phone from ringing constantly, meaning she won’t get the rest she needs.
  • Offer to Drive: You might also offer to drive her to treatment, or to an appointment, or for lab tests. Once you’re out and around with her, you might even suggest the two of you stop somewhere for lunch, or even pick up some lunch to take back to her place. She may not feel well enough to accept, but offering it will be appreciated.
  • If you have the capability, then offer to be her patient advocate.

What to Say to a Sick Friend

Here are some things you can say to a sick friend that might well be appreciated that don’t cross any lines:

  • Be empathetic. “I am so very sorry this has happened to you. I’m here if you’d like to talk about it.”
  • “That sounds painful. Is there anything I can do to help you avoid some of that pain?” (This would be appropriate if someone has broken a bone or was in some sort of accident.)
  • “How about if I bring over some dinners you can freeze for when you don’t feel like cooking?”
  • “I’d be happy to take your kids one weekend to give you some quiet time.”

These will be tailored to your friend’s situation, of course.  Anything along these same lines will be perfectly appropriate.

Don'ts for Reaching Out to a Sick Friend:

  • Do not get into a contest with your friend over illnesses. Don’t make references to Aunt Sally who was diagnosed with the same thing, or your neighbor Matthew who was in a car accident, too. This comes across as a competition and no medical problem is a competition. 
  • But it's OK to share your similar diagnosis: The exception to that “don’t” would be if you, yourself, have been diagnosed with the same thing or have had the same experience.  But even then – ask.  “Justine, if it would be helpful to you to learn more about my treatment when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I’m happy to walk through it with you.  But only if it’s something that would help you.”
  • Don’t come up with “affirmations” Avoid phrases like “You need to be strong for your husband” or “Everything happens for a reason.” You may firmly believe that’s true, but you don’t know if your friend does, and right now, she does not want to hear it.
  • Don’t tell someone how healthy they look. They aren’t healthy! So if you tell them they look healthy, they will think you are lying and they’ll dismiss everything else you say, too.
  • Don’t tell your friend to call you. She won’t, and she doesn’t want to have to think about doing so. Instead, call her on occasion, and start the conversation with “Is this a good time? If not, let me know when a better time would be.

If your friend is hospitalized, here are some good guidelines for visiting her (or not) in the hospital.

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