What To Say When Someone Is Sick, According to Experts
"Hugs, drugs, or (hot chocolate) mugs! What do you need most right now?" Being sick can feel lonely and scary. Here are expert scripts for what to say when a loved one is feeling ill.
If there’s something positive about post-pandemic life, perhaps it’s holding a wider space for empathy and recognizing that it’s OK not to always be OK…or not having all the answers when someone we know is struggling. Whether someone who’s special to you is battling a major illness, recovering from surgery, dealing with a tough episode of a chronic condition or trying to push through the worst part of the flu, Stephanie Mihalas, PhD, a board-certified psychologist and founder of The Center for Well Being in Los Angeles, CA, says feeling bad mentally when you’re feeling bad physically is a common part of the experience of being under the weather. Especially when the symptoms of your illness overlap with symptoms of anxiety or depression—think fatigue, malaise, brain fog and insomnia—if a loved one is struggling with an ailment, it can be tricky to know what to say when someone is sick.
One surefire remedy for the physical and mental symptoms is feeling loved and supported by others. You can be a bright spot, says Sanam Hafeez, PhD, a NYC Neuropsychologist and Director of Comprehend the Mind. “Showing your care and support can go a long way in helping them feel better,” she says.
So you want to help—great! But what exactly do you say to someone who is sick? We asked our experts to share some of their go-to phrases.
1. “Hugs, drugs or hot chocolate mugs: What do you need most right now?”
When you hear someone is sick, it’s natural to want to help. Offering them a few options—with a dash of humor—will make it easier for them to ask for help, not to mention give them a much-needed smile, Hafeez says. If they’re not feeling up to a visit, you can offer virtual hugs or leave a little care package on their porch.
2. “I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis, if you want to talk about it, I want to listen.”
From cancer to lupus to chronic fatigue syndrome, when someone gets a life changing diagnosis the top thing they need is support. “People who feel like they can’t talk about their illness are at a higher risk for mental and physical health problems, so it becomes a compounding problem,” Mihalas says. Offering a listening ear—when they’re ready—is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone who is ill.
3. “Heard you are feeling sick! I want you to know I’m thinking about you.”
Sometimes there is nothing you can do for the person who is suffering but they will still appreciate your love and words of support, Mihalas says. Plus, this opens the conversation if they do want to vent or ask for help.
4. “Just want to check in, how are you feeling today?”
Sickness severity can change by the day (or sometimes by the hour). Checking in regularly about how they are doing and if they are trending better or worse, can provide a lot of comfort to someone who is sick, Hafeez says. This is especially true if they live alone—being sick solo can be especially disheartening.
5. “Can I call or drop by tomorrow to check on you?”
If someone is really ill, planning check-ins ahead of time may be best. It might give the individual something to look forward to and makes sure they’re receiving regular support, Mihalas says.
Hearing someone’s voice or seeing them in person can also give you a better idea of how they’re really doing—something that’s hard to get from a text. This could also help you gauge whether it’s a good time for a visit, or a better moment to give them space.
6. “I hear you say that you’re feeling pretty down about your illness, and that makes total sense.”
Being sick, especially if it’s a chronic diagnosis or a serious illness, can bring up a lot of confusing and painful feelings. An individual who’s coping with illness may cycle through anger, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, and even joy or relief. “Listening and then validating their feelings helps them feel heard and lets them know they aren’t bad or wrong to feel the way they do,” Hafeez says.
7. “I know this is tough…but you’re tougher! You’re not alone in this fight: I’ve got your back.”
You want to avoid mindless platitudes but reminding your loved one of their strength and that they aren’t fighting alone can be powerful, Mihalas says. Add a picture of you two together—or, if it feels appropriate, a funny sick meme for extra smiles.
8. “Rest up and get better soon—it’s not the same without you!”
It’s still kind to reach out to someone who is sick even if you’re not super close to the sick person, Hafeez says. For instance, a casual friend or coworker may appreciate that you’re thinking of them and knowing that they are missed.
9. “I can’t understand exactly what you’re going through, but I’m here for you and you have all my sympathy.”
Going through a prolonged illness or diagnostic process can feel incredibly isolating and lonely. Avoid telling someone that you “know what they’re going through,” because that isn’t true.
With that said, everyone has had experience being sick—and you may have experience with an illness similar to theirs—and it’s fine to relate on that level, Hafeez says. “The key is to make sure you’re actively listening to what they’re saying and not turning it into a discussion about you,” she suggests.
10. “You can be honest: Did you really need surgery, or did you just want that delish hospital food?”
Humor really can be the best medicine and nothing feels better when you’re hurting than a good belly laugh, Hafeez says. Just make sure the jokes are appropriate to that person and your relationship with them. If you’re not sure how your humor will land, it’s best to skip the jokes and offer a sincere sentiment.