Sunday, 26 January 2014

What Not To Say To A Sick Person

Before I start I'll point out that I'm writing this from the perspective of someone who has been unwell, rather than from that of a nurse. I could easily do both but I don't talk about my job here (and before you say it, yes I know that seems odd given the title of the blog but in the immortal words of Cher from Clueless: Whatever).

This is for anyone out there who knows someone or has any (no matter how fleeting) contact with someone who has a chronic illness. A brief guide, or a "how to" if you will.

I'm basing all of this on my own experiences and from others in similar circumstances that I've spoken to. Although I know people mean well, it can often be hard to know what to say in certain situations, particularly when someone is very unwell and so I hope this will be useful and will be taken in the spirit it is intended.


1) Try to understand when someone with a chronic illness cancels at the last minute. I know it's really frustrating and it messes up your plans but stop and think why they can't make it. I hate cancelling anything, it leaves me wracked with guilt and worry about how the other person must feel, something that is magnified if it appears they are annoyed at being let down. The last thing a sick person needs is to feel worse, am I right?! So go easy, take a deep breath and say "no worries, hope everything's OK".

2) That brings me nicely onto my next point. Text messages, emails and cards are all greatly appreciated when you're unwell. It's positively heart warming to know people are thinking of you and wishing you well and it's a lovely thing to do for someone. Another thing that's nice is to just text someone and say "I'm sorry to hear you're unwell, if there's anything I can do to help please let me know. There's no need to answer this, just wanted you to know I'm thinking of you". That right there says everything you need. I can't tell you how grateful I was to receive messages like that because it let me know the person cared but also that I was under no obligation to try and get the strength together to send back an explanatory text about how I was feeling (surprisingly difficult when you have no energy).

3) Try to respect a person's privacy and dignity. Personally, I don't have a huge problem with people asking me general questions about when I was sick, nor do I have an issue with talking about it. The difficulty for me arises when I'm asked extremely personal questions; I won't go into detail but a good rule of thumb is to stop and think before you ask if you'd be uncomfortable being asked the same question or is it appropriate given the surroundings/circumstances. 

4) It's very well meant when people say "but you don't look ill at all..you look grand!". I know that's meant as a compliment but several people I've spoken to have said that they bridled when they heard this said to them when very unwell. Almost as if you now feel like you have to prove you are in fact ill or even worse, that you wished you were as well as you looked and not suffering on the inside. Being reminded of that isn't always helpful. On the flip side of that, telling someone they look brutal is also a bad idea. I know, you can't win, eh? Except maybe just to say "you look great" and leave it at that.

5) As valid as I think other people's faith is, I don't think it's ever appropriate to express to someone that "If you trust in God, you will get better" etc. You don't know anyones stance on religion, some people balk at it completely and being told that with the help of what you consider to be an imaginary deity, everything will be fine, could be quite frustrating. Lighting candles or praying for someone on the other hand, is a great idea. The difference being that you are sending out positive thoughts for that person and again, it's comforting to know you're in that person's thoughts..somehow it seems a bit more tangible. I'm all for an old prayer and a candle, so I am.

6) Advising someone who is unwell about what they should and shouldn't do as a "sick person" is incredibly annoying to be honest. Guaranteed, the person you're saying it to will know much more about their own condition and what they're capable of than you do, so again, maybe just think it through before saying it.

7) I can't count the amount of times someone said to me how lucky I was to be on sick leave and not have to go to work. For me, this was a real kick in the teeth (although again, I know it's just an attempt to look on the bright side), I love my job and found being stuck at home ill really very upsetting and at times, soul destroying. Basically, if someone is off work voluntarily (on sabbatical etc) and is happy about it then sure, work away and say the above. Being on sick leave on the other hand really is not a positive, so tread carefully.


8) And lastly, although I know I said I wouldn't go back to my nursing knowledge here, I would like to just touch on one very important point that I think is relevant to everyone. In college we are taught all about Holism (I'm giving it a capital H to emphasise the importance) which basically means that you treat the individual as a "whole" person, i.e not just physically but emotionally, mentally, spiritually and socially. You do not just view them as their illness, they are not just the sum of their parts, if you will. I think this is vital to be honest. People who have a chronic illness are weary of being ill, they're tired of being associated with that illness and would like to be considered as themselves rather than "diabetes" or "cancer" or "cardiac disease" or whatever. How you can apply this in real life if you're not a health care professional, is to talk about things other than how that person is feeling, you should of course ask and I'm sure that would be appreciated but there's no need to dwell on the minutiae of someones health. Believe me, sometimes you just get sick of talking about it and would like to be asked about the latest book you read instead. I generally found this only ever happened to me with people that I didn't know particularly well, at social functions etc. I understand that people are stuck for things to say and often it's felt that it shows interest to ask people personal questions about their lives. That's completely fair enough but again, from experience, if I'm at a social event, I really do not want to be discussing surgery that I had to have. You can take it as a given that it isn't a pleasant topic of conversation for anyone, unless of course the person you're talking to was the surgeon involved and they did a particularly spiffy job, in which case; high five!

That's all I can think of right now and if you stuck with me to the end, then I appreciate it. I hope this was in some way helpful and I'd just like to reiterate, that concern for another human being is always appreciated, I just wanted to share a few tips I've picked up along the way. We're all guilty of not getting things perfectly right all the time and that's OK too but I suppose being mindful of the mental strain that having a chronic illness can leave a person with is important and trying not to add to that is just common sense.

Please let me know in the comments if there's anything you'd like to add to this list!

25 comments:

  1. Brilliant piece, I have something kind of simliar drafted but haven't had the guts to post yet...one day! I'm guilty myself of saying a few of those and it's not until its out that I think jesus woman why did you say that! Another fab post hun xx

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    1. Thanks Sam, I've had it written for a while, took me some time to get the guts up too! You should go for it, if it helps someone else then it's definitely worth it! xx

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  2. I love how in my http:// box it says NFP, like some glorious football league of beauty! This post speaks volumes, thank you! :) x

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    1. Ha ha ha!! I LOVE that description!! Thanks hun! Xxx

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  3. Great post! I have an auto-immune disease so most of my friends and family would be very considerate towards me if I can't go out or need help with my kids or minding them so I can go to hospital appointments.

    You've really hit the nail on the head with all of your points, have already bookmarked this. :-)

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    1. Aw thank you, I'm glad it was helpful. xx

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  4. Great post, agree with all your points!

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  5. Love the post!! Completely agree with you!

    alex @ pinkelephantbloggin.com

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  6. 2: A million times this. It cheered me up to get messages like this, no doubt.

    And while I don't suffer from a chronic illness, I completely understand the not wanting to relive every little detail of my hospital stay over and over. My kidneys are grand, thanks for asking.

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    1. It can get pretty tiresome alright! I think people just forget that loads of people have probably already asked you the same questions but it would be worse if no one ever asked you how you were, I just think there's a way and a means of going about it, you know?

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  7. Oh my goodness yes, you have hit the nail on the head. Thank you for writing this post.

    I spent most of 2009 off work sick mixture of pleurisy, clots in my lungs and asthma. I found it so difficult on a personal level, the illness, isolation moods etc. And then everyone else's opinions of what I should do. Or the so & so had something and they were grand in few weeks how are you still sick. And the you look great used to kill me, eh my lungs are having a rebellion I can't breathe therefore lungs & heart are under pressure so yes I have rosy cheeks.
    I stopped telling people how I was I just would say improving slowly but surely, people don't truly want to know the ins and outs they just want to know you are OK.
    The other thing I discovered was who my true friends were and was quite surprised by the process. It really opened my eyes. I was surprised by the people who went above and beyond.

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    1. No, thank you for reading! I'm sorry to hear you've had it so tough too, it's so hard to keep going while trying to explain to people over and over again, especially when some people don't take "i'm ok" as enough of an answer!

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  8. Ah my earlier comment went all funny.

    This post is like you looked through a window into my life. It's the people that say "ah sure you'll be grand" that drive me nuts. Yeah I will be grand but Im not now and you saying that makes it worse. Or even worse, the friends who get thick for days because you canceled last minute . sorry i canceled but I literally can't find the energy to lift myself off the chair never mind drive yo your house and listen to shit.

    Sorry for the rant, but this is a really brilliant post

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    1. That's one I hadn't thought of but you're right, it is very frustrating to hear that after about the 100th time. That's a shame friends have made you feel that way too, it's the last thing you need...maybe send them the link to this post! Not a rant at all, I hope it was a bit helpful. xx

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  9. Great post Chloe, I suppose it’s an area that people are always going to be murky around. I 100% agree on the holistic side of things, this really is key especially in cases where people have mental health difficulties. People who are sick are well aware that they are sick. Even that word sick bothers me sometimes, but that’s another story. Having never had an illness that was serious myself, I cannot attest to how it must feel to have people reminding you all the time, but I have minded people who have been quite ill and was always conscious and still am to this day, to be a positive person for them, but not in a ‘I feel sorry for you’ kind of way if that makes sense.
    I currently have a very sick aunt and I admire her so much for her positivity, she has a great outlook on life and this in turn affects how people interact with her. It’s normal if you will.

    Anyway sorry for my long rant, but great post Chloe!

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    1. Thanks for your comment Nora. I completely agree with you about being positive, it's very important to try and avoid negativity but equally I think it's important to let people have a good moan every so often without saying "sure there's always someone worse off than you" or "it could be worse". Both of those statements are generally true but it's sometimes really cathartic to just give out for a bit without having to look on the bright side, if you get me. Thanks for mentioning mental health, I didn't not mention that intentionally, but it should definitely be in there! x

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  10. Great post! I just want to add that this should also hold true for people going through mental health problems. Sometimes it's hard to do things if you're going through a bad anxiety bout or feeling really down. And telling someone who's low that they should try feeling happier or that they only feel down certain times of the year because they expect to feel like that (I take a hitting most winters and have for almost 10 years at this stage) will not make things better, it's not a switch you can turn off when you want. In fact, if anything it'll make someone feel worse to say these things to them. Just wanted to put a mental health spin on some of the points you made :)

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    1. Thanks for your comment Breige, I actually didn't intentionally leave out mental health in there but you're right, it's definitely as relevant to what I've said as any physical illness is. x

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    2. Oh no worries, sure you were writing this coming from your own experiences. It's just a lot of what you wrote resonated with me, from a mental health POV. And not that any specfic illness is harder to have than any other illness, but I do think that sometimes it's hard to people to wrap their head around dealing with someone who is going through mental health problems, because they don't see any physical problems. Like, they might think 'sure, it's not like your in pain because you have *insert physical illness here*' or can visibly see that you are in pain when things are going bad like they can with a physical illness. Like I said, a lot of people think 'sure, just get over yourself, you'll be grand', but just like you said above, you shouldn't tell a person how they should or shouldn't act as a sick person, be it a physical or mental health problem. Just wanted to add my original comment in case others were reading through the comments :)

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  11. Great post. It's so hard to know what to say and but your text message is perfect.

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  12. Great points in a great post! One thing I've heard suggested for people who are seriously ill is instead of asking 'how are you?', asking 'how are you today?' that way avoiding the whole 'Duh, still really ill!' scenario.

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  13. Great post Chloe, really insightful. I'm very conscious of trying not to overstep the mark, much like when someone has a family member who's ill, I tend to stick to the safe - "hope all is okay, if you need anything please let me know" - kinda thing. My husband is diabolical, he has about as much tact as an atom bomb, and will ask the ins and outs of illnesses, conditions, diseases, you name it. I've had to give him the side-eye or change the subject really quickly on many occasions - I don't think some people realise how intrusive they can be! I actually find it shocking how or where people get the confidence (or pure neck) to ask invasive personal questions, total strangers have asked me incredibly personal questions about pregnancy, or literally come up and grabbed my stomach when I was heavily pregnant - I can't fathom the reasoning behind that. I've gone off on a tangent but anyway - good to know that offers of help or just little thoughts make a difference when someone's not feeling 100%, I'll be sticking to those!

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