In my last article, I talked about some common ways loved ones are not as helpful as they could be when talking about illness. Although I previously emphasized illnesses that may be hard to notice, anyone with a visible chronic disease knows all too well that communication can falter among well-meaning friends and family. In this post, I will address some more common pitfalls and why they occur.

Friends and family are often terrified by severe illnesses, especially when they occur in younger adults, and though they might want to be helpful, they often don’t know what to say. When people feel helpless platitudes can be common. Who wants to hear friends say such things as, “Well it could be worse, right?” (Often the answer is, “Not really”), or “Illness is a gift; you can learn a lot from it.” (And the answer is, “Maybe, but it’s a gift I don’t want.”)

Sometimes people affected by illness don’t want to talk about it. That’s okay. People with illness, especially those undergoing difficult medical treatments, often relish the breaks they have when they do not feel like a sick person. They look for friends and family members who can treat them as “normal” people again. This does not mean that patients will necessarily act happy. In fact, it can be quite distressing to medical patients when they feel that people are trying to get them to feel or act in a good mood.

When we try to cheer people up who are ill, it can be more about managing our own anxiety than about really trying to help. People who are sick are often not happy and it is not our job to change that. When we try to cheer people up, it can communicate the message that we do not want to hear about what they are going through.

People struggling with illness need to think about what they want and need in a friend or support system, and find people who will listen in the ways that they need. Requirements for good listening are unique and individual, however. Some people want practical advice, some want to vent, and some need empathic, “what would a therapist say” kind of support.  Not everyone can manage talking about illness. If you are a patient, only take a risk in talking about your health with someone who you think is a safe bet. Consider the kinds of support your friends or family can offer. If you have a brother who is best at offering practical advice, it might not be best to call him when you have undefined anxiety and just want someone to listen. On the other hand, he might be the perfect person to call when you are thinking about finding a new doctor.

As friends and family, we are not on stage when trying to help someone who is ill. Extending the acting metaphor, we as loved ones are not the main characters. We are simply in supporting roles trying to help the person we care about. As supporting actors we can offer a lot; even when we feel helpless, we can communicate how much we care.