What Not to Say to Someone Having a Health Crisis
6 things to avoid saying and what experts suggest instead
I recently underwent a months-long health challenge and lost 65 pounds in a year. When I was still struggling with the health challenge and the weight loss, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in months.
“My God!” he exclaimed, wide-eyed. “You look like you’re wasting away!”
When women lose weight, most consider it a good thing. The man’s statement, along with his apparent shock, made me feel worse. Though far from emaciated, it made me feel as though I was wasting away.
We’ve all said things to people who are going through a health crisis that could be considered rude or insensitive. I’m pretty confident I have, but what makes us do it?
“I think people are just scared and nervous and don’t know how to respond,” said Mindy Beth Lipson, a psychologist in Phoenix. “There might be several reasons, the first being it brings up their own mortality. Some people also just lack empathy.”
Whatever the reasons, Lipson said, there are better ways to communicate with a loved one who is going through a health crisis.
Here are six types of comments people in a health crisis have heard, and what to say instead:
1. Bringing up God or faith: When Michelle Pierce’s daughter, Ali, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and liver disease at 15, Pierce was shocked by a local pastor’s statement. “He told me we were going through this because of my lack of faith,” said the 42-year-old Mountain Home, Ark. resident.
“Blaming is hurtful,” said Lipson. “You really have to be careful about bringing up religion. Whether you should do so depends on your personal relationship with them [the people in a health crisis].”
What to say instead: Lipson suggested asking the person, “How do you feel about what happened to you?” or “What do you think is going on?” She also said do not say, “Everything happens for a reason” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
2. Asking a person his or her prognosis or telling stories of people who have had the same condition who didn’t have a positive outcome: “I think it’s human nature to do that, to tell stories,” said Sal Raichbach, a psychologist in Jupiter, Fla. “Every person deals with adversity and pain, but try to avoid comparisons.”
What to say instead: Lipson said the most important thing to do is to make the person feel he or she hasn't lost any power. “Empower the person to believe in positive strength,” said Lipson. She added it’s OK to ask, “How’s it going?” or “How are you feeling?” And if you know of specialists and the person hasn’t begun treatment, you can offer a referral to a specialist.
3. Making negative statements about appearance: In addition to not saying "you look like you're wasting away,” avoid uttering that the person looks tired or “washed out.” Raichbach said: “People know what they look like. The more you say, the worse it’s going to come out.”
What to say instead: Lipson points out that commenting on appearance is tricky. “You don’t want to ignore the problem, but you can say something in a way that isn’t cruel,” she said. “If the person makes a comment about their appearance first, telling them, ‘I see it’s been hard on you’ is acceptable and then ask if there’s anything you can do for them.”
4. Blaming the patient: “You wouldn’t have these problems if you’d eaten right” or “Your smoking probably caused your cancer,” is not productive, said Lipson. “There’s no way to know for sure why someone has a health condition,” she said. “Why make them feel worse?”
What to say instead: Lipson said the important thing is to find out how the person is feeling and asking what you can do. “A simple ‘How are you doing today?’ or asking them if they’re getting the support they need,” is good, she said.
5. Asking someone who is depressed, “Why?”: According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Still, depression and anxiety are often dismissed by well-meaning people. Other things not to say: “What do you have to be depressed about, your life is great!” or “Why are you depressed, aren’t you on medication?”
What to say instead: Lipson suggests focusing on a person’s strength. “Tell them ‘I’ve seen you get through this before, I know you will get through this,” she said, adding that if you are close to the man or woman, you can ask, “You don’t seem like yourself. Have you seen your doctor lately?”
6. Asking a person with dementia what he or she remembers: “Don’t ask anything that begins with ‘Do you remember?’ to someone living with dementia when they’re at a stage that they still remember that they don’t remember,” said Frank Wallis, 63, of Batesville, Ark. Wallis’ 69-year-old wife, Janet Ann Nelson-Wallis, suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home.
What to say instead: “With someone who has memory loss, it is best not to remind them that they don’t remember,” said Raichbach. “Just tell them stories as if each one is brand new so you won’t make them feel lost and confused.”
In each of these situations, the experts suggest making specific offers, such as bringing food, taking the person to appointments, helping with child care and the like.
Also, the words “I love you” go a long way.