What do you say when someone is ill or dying? Coming up with just the right thing to say can be challenging, and saying the wrong thing, no matter how well it is intended, can cause more hurt than healing. Whether you are meeting someone in person or trying to craft that perfectly worded “Get Well Soon” or “Sympathy” card, the following rules of thumb apply:
1. Be genuine and say what is in your heart.
If it makes you sad, say so. If it breaks your heart, say so. Someone who is ill or hurting finds comfort in knowing that there is someone who cares.
2. Avoid the trite.
Often people feel like they have to say something, so they resort to the trite phrases like, “everything happens for a reason,” or “I know just how you feel.” These phrases are meaningless.
The “reason” something happens could easily be someone’s carelessness or self destructive behavior. If so, this phrase is judgmental and detrimental.
You do not know how a person feels, because you are not the person who is ill or hurting. Even if you have had the exact same affliction, you have no way of knowing how that person feels. Saying nothing, except to acknowledge the illness or the pain is preferable to saying something trite and projecting a sense of judgment or arrogance.
3. Know the perfect phrases.
Two of the most perfect phrases that can be used when communicating with someone who is ill or hurting are, “I’m sorry,” and “I wish …”. Believe it or not, and as common or trite as it may seem, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sorry you are sick/hurting,” are extremely genuine and honest.
“I wish I could make you feel better,” or “I wish you didn’t have to go through this,” is equally genuine and honest. Tuck these two phrases into your arsenal of comfort words and use them liberally in your cards, letters and phone calls.
4. If you want to offer help, it is more meaningful to be specific than general.
“Can I bring you (or take you out to) dinner on Wednesday night?” is more likely to be acknowledged than “Is there anything I can do?” or “Let me know if you need anything.”
Acknowledging someone’s illness or pain can significantly facilitate that person’s healing. Knowing the right things to say can make a difference between a “Get Well” or “Sympathy” card hitting the trash can as soon as it is read, and the card making the first page in the scrapbook of healing.