What to Say & Not To Say to Someone Ill

In the presence of someone ill, I often experience mixed feelings – despite the fact that I am a social worker and often visit elderly clients whose health is failing.

I sometimes struggle to find the right words, but I depend on my intuition and the specifics of the situation at hand to guide me in this process. I also find that my client’s life experiences and personality, as well as the nature of our relationship affect how he/she may react to what I say.

“What can I do to help?” This simple question may lead to a variety of responses. Some clients hate this worn out, even if genuine, question because it puts the burden back on them. Others feel grateful because they do need help, and this question gives them the opportunity to ask for it.

Another common statement is, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” Many people view these seven words as a mechanically uttered cliche. Others, however, believe the other person is saying, “I care about you,”and they gladly accept this expression of love and concern.

After a friend of mine underwent a unilateral mastectomy, her cousin quipped she was like the Amazon warrior women who intentionally cut off one breast to facilitate archery. She felt tremendously empowered by that statement and felt it was the best thing anyone said to her during her recovery. Other women may not have reacted so favorably to such a remark suspecting they were being called unfeminine, damaged or disfigured.

People have individual reactions to what they hear. However, there are a few things that are welcome: be a good listener and be present in the moment. Don’t struggle for inspirational words. Just be. Your presence often means more than words.

~ Elina Polyakov, LSW, MSW