The 6 things never to say to someone with a life-threatening illness.


I’ve never had to face really ill health but my son has.  Born two months premature with some gastric and respiratory complications he endured quite a rough ride in intensive care. My family, friends, even strangers I met at the hospital coffee shop, would gee me along telling me how well he was doing or how soon he would be better.  It was confusing because this isn’t what I was hearing from anyone who actually examined him, like, you know,  a doctor.

But I understood where they were coming from.  I’ve been known to do the same thing although I have tried to learn to listen more and speak less. So now when I see someone who is genuinely sick – life threateningly sick –  I often freeze.

Well I freeze externally – internally I am buzzing with ridiculous thoughts and words that I try desperately not to allow any air time.  My instinct is to try and make the person better, to fix them with my words or try and reassure them that it’s not so bad, when often it is.

Bruce Feiler author of “The Council of Dads: A Story of Family, Friendship and Learning How to Live”, recently shared an excerpt of his book in The New York Times. Bruce had bone cancer, he also had 3-year-old identical twin girls, a working wife, 9 months of chemotherapy and 15 hours of reconstructive surgery to deal with.

People rallied to help him, they organised food, they helped with childcare, his friends even made a video of their high school reunion but as Bruce concedes “some gestures were more helpful than others, and a few were downright annoying”

Bruce created a list of the Six Things You Should Never Say to a Friend (or Relative or Colleague) Who’s Sick. And Four Things You Can Always Say.

So the things you shouldn’t say according to Bruce Feiler.

1. What can I do to help?

Don’t ask people what you can do to help them – just help.  Get their house cleaned, have meals prepared, pick the kids up from school.  Be proactive

2. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

“It’s a mindless cliché”  Bruce writes “It’s time to retire this hackneyed expression to the final resting place of platitudes, alongside “I’m stepping down to spend more time with my family,” or “It’s not you, it’s me.”

3. Did you try that mango colonic I recommended ?

Let the doctors make the medical recommendations “I was stunned by the number of friends and strangers alike who inundated me with tips for miracle tonics… “If you put tumeric under your fingernails, and pepper on your neck, and take a grapefruit shower, you’ll feel better”.  Just don’t do it.


4. Everything will be O.K.

You don’t know that everything will be okay so don’t say it.  It makes you feel better – and it doesn’t do anything for the patient. They are well aware of their doctor’s prognosis and they don’t need yours.

5. How are we today?

Don’t speak to someone who is sick as if they have lost their mental capacity. They are sick, not infants.

6. You look great.

Don’t focus on external appearances, it doesn’t mean anything and patients are likely to see straight through this, they know how they look. But more importantly they know how they feel

So what does Bruce think you should be saying?

1. Don’t write me back.

Patients get overwhelmed with the burden of keeping everyone informed and thanked for all their well wishes. If you do something for someone let them know that you don’t need to be thanked or kept up to date with every milestone of the disease

2. I should be going now.

Don’t overstay your welcome, 20 minutes is fine, even less if the patient is tired or in pain. “And while you’re there, wash a few dishes or tidy up the room. And take out the trash when you leave.”

3. Would you like some gossip?

“Patients are often sick of talking about their illness. We have to do that with our doctors, nurses and insurance henchmen. By all means, follow the lead of the individual, but sometimes ignoring the elephant in the room is just the right medicine”

4. I love you.

“When all else fails, simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain. It doesn’t need to be ornamented. It just needs to be real. “I’m sorry you have to go through this.” “I hate to see you suffer.” “You mean a lot to me.”

What do you say to people that are sick? Do you over compensate, are you gushy? Have you ever been seriously sick? What did you want to hear?