What Not To Say To Someone Who's Sick

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/137176802/137177732" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript
People often want to be supportive when they learn a loved one is seriously ill. But too often, says writer Bruce Feiler, they inadvertently say or do the wrong things. i

People often want to be supportive when they learn a loved one is seriously ill. But too often, says writer Bruce Feiler, they inadvertently say or do the wrong things. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
People often want to be supportive when they learn a loved one is seriously ill. But too often, says writer Bruce Feiler, they inadvertently say or do the wrong things.

People often want to be supportive when they learn a loved one is seriously ill. But too often, says writer Bruce Feiler, they inadvertently say or do the wrong things.

iStockphoto.com

When best-selling author Bruce Feiler was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2008, he was thankful for the many prayers, postcards and casseroles that loved ones sent his way.

"We were inundated with warmth and loving gestures and incredible acts of generosity and kindness," Feiler tells NPR's Neal Conan of the time he was undergoing treatment for cancer — a period he and his family refers to as "the lost year."

But there were things many friends, family and acquaintances would say that — despite the best of intentions — simply didn't help.

"The ugly secret is that all of us that are patients kind of have this underground ... language of things that people say that annoy us," Feiler says.

Sympathetic to the fact that many people simply don't know what to say, Feiler compiled a list of the top phrases to avoid for The New York Times.

According to Feiler, the commonly heard cliche "You look great" is particularly obnoxious.

"The truth is," Feiler says, "when you are a patient, you know that your hair's falling out and in clumps, and your colostomy bag needs emptying, and you're in fact quite yellow or pale or brown or whatever it might be at the time."

Feiler advises, "Be careful about pointing out to people — reminding them — that they may not look good. Vanity is perhaps the one part of the human anatomy that is immune from cancer."

A religion writer whose books include Walking the Bible and Where God Was Born, Feiler also found he had mixed responses to well-wishers' spiritual overtures.

"I write books about religion; I know a lot of people who pray. And when they say to me, 'I pray for you,' it's meaningful. But the particular phrase 'My thoughts and prayers are with you' in most cases is a hollow expression," he says. "I mean, to me, it really should be relegated to that hackneyed place of 'I'm stepping down to spend more time with my family.' "

Friends are also often quick to ask what they can do to help but, according to Feiler, those vague offers of help will almost always go unaccepted because the burden then falls on the patient to tell you when they're in need. And, he says, "They don't want to feel vulnerable."

If you really want to help an ailing friend, Feiler says, don't ask what you can do — simply do it. He says sick people are often too overwhelmed with the minutiae of dealing with doctors, nurses and insurance companies to handle many day-to-day tasks.

"Unpot my dead plants, replace my light bulbs, change my oil. ... Because you have to live your daily life," Feiler says. "You don't need to do a grand gesture. Sometimes it's the small gesture that's exactly what's needed."

And when it comes to providing emotional support, he says, skip the platitudes. What matters is being honest and human.

"The most important, maybe even the simplest, is just ... a simple, direct expression of emotion," he says. "'I love you. I'm sorry that you're going through this. I'm reaching out to you.'"

Feiler says such statements can make all the difference.

"These simple gestures really echo so deeply in the souls of the patient, because it makes that human connection," he says. "Just talk about how you feel about the person, simply and directly. And perhaps that's the best medicine you can give somebody."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.