What You Should—And Shouldn’t—Say to a Friend Going Through a Major Illness

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When a friend receives a life-changing diagnosis, it can be tough to know how to show up for them. Chronic illnesses—like multiple sclerosis and type 2 diabetes, for example—can completely upend a person’s world. So can finding out about infertility due to endometriosis, say, or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.

“A lot of people in this situation will feel isolated and scared,” Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, LCSW-R, therapist and cofounder of the Thru My Eyes Foundation in Harrison, New York (a nonprofit that helps folks with life-threatening illnesses leave video legacies for their loved ones), tells SELF. That’s why your pal needs your support, perhaps now more than ever. “However, that can be tricky, because friends and family—they might not know how to relate,” Dr. Maidenberg says.

For instance, you might automatically respond to your buddy’s health news with “I know what you’re going through,” when really all you wanted was to be sympathetic. Or, in an attempt to lift their spirits, you blurt out, “I’m sure you’ll be fine”—which you realize, too late, just sounds dismissive. Some people also opt to stay silent because “they don’t want to say the ‘wrong thing,’” Dr. Maidenberg adds.

As hard as it can be to find the right words, though, offering a verbal pick-me-up can make a world of difference for your friend who’s struggling. So if you’re not sure what exactly to say to help them feel better, here are five compassionate and respectful phrases that’ll let them know you’re in their corner.

“I love you, and I’m here for you.”

A gentle reminder that they’re loved and not alone can ease some of the weight they’re carrying, Aleksandra Rayska, PhD, a psychologist at Therapists of New York who specializes in helping people with chronic pain, tells SELF. With a major diagnosis, it’s important to remember that your friend’s entire future and goals might have to change—if, for instance, their arthritis will prevent them from regularly playing tennis, or if something like chronic fatigue syndrome has turned even the most mundane work tasks into Herculean efforts.

“The impact of a serious illness can make you feel lonely, so knowing there are people who are willing to listen can be incredibly impactful,” Dr. Rayska says. As simple as this affirmation is, telling your friend you’re there for them can make it easier for them to call or text you when they need support—and hopefully reassure them if they ever feel guilty for “rambling” or “overwhelming you” about their situation, she adds.

“I don’t exactly know what to say, but I’m thinking of you.”

Rather than trying to relate to what they’re going through, both experts we spoke with agree that it’s more meaningful to just be vulnerable and straightforward: Tell them you can’t imagine what the hell a Crohn’s disease flare-up feels like since you’ve never had one, for example, or what their particular experience with cancer is like (yes, even if your aunt overcame it). “It’s usually better to just be open being at a loss for words, rather than forcing yourself to stay positive and optimistic,” Dr. Rayska says.

Most people appreciate that sincerity over cliché lines (which can come off as generic and even dismissive). Acknowledging the complexity of your pal’s situation, even if it leaves you speechless, can show that you’re honest, genuine, and willing to navigate their unique journey together, per Dr. Rayska—and this could strengthen your bond as a result.

“I can’t imagine how you’re feeling, but whatever emotions you’re experiencing are perfectly valid.”

On a similar note, telling your friend they’re “so brave” or to “stay strong” might seem like words of encouragement. But actually, these well-intentioned sentiments can put more pressure on someone who’s already feeling vulnerable, Dr. Rayska points out.

“Everyone has their own experience, and you want to make sure you’re conveying that all thoughts and emotions—even those like anger, hopelessness, or confusion—are okay and expected,” Dr. Maidenberg adds. “It’s all about open acceptance: Whatever they’re feeling is perfectly fine and understandable.”

When you validate (rather than ignore) the tough, downright shitty parts of what your loved one is going through, you create a safe space for them to express themselves without judgment. As a result, they’re less likely to bottle up those negative emotions, she says.

“Let me do X for you—how does that sound?"

All of the comforting words above can make your pal feel emotionally supported, but helping with daily tasks (like chores and errands) is another thoughtful way to ease their stress, both therapists say. Just think twice before asking the well-meaning but potentially overwhelming: “What can I do for you?”

“Your friend may not have the energy to come up with ideas or little ‘jobs’ for their loved ones,” Dr. Rayska says. They also might not know what they need or may feel guilty asking you for help. That’s why it’s better to offer specific favors. For example, if they haven’t had the energy to cook or buy groceries, you can say something like, “Let me bring over tacos on Saturday. I’m not sure if that’s something that would be helpful or not, but let me know. I’m happy to do it!” Or maybe you can offer to drive them to their next doctor’s appointment if they don’t have a car or need extra support.

It’s up to them if they choose to take you up on your favor, but the point is that you’re not pressuring them to articulate what they need—and you’re also giving them the option to decline, Dr. Maidenberg adds.

“You don’t have to say anything.”

Everyone copes differently: Some people will be eager to share the specifics of what, exactly, their doctor said or the TMI side effects of their new medication. Others, however, might not be in the mood to talk at all, or they might feel uncomfortable sharing intimate details about their health.

Reassuring your friend that it’s their choice to open up (or not) shows that you respect their privacy and boundaries, Dr. Maidenberg says. And, as Dr. Rayska adds, sometimes just watching Friends together, swapping cat memes, or even sitting side by side on the couch in complete silence can show your support more than words ever could.


Originally Appeared on SELF