From Deborah Orr, writing in the Guardian:
10 things not to say to someone who’s ill:
1. ‘I feel so sorry for you’
‘…Do say: “I so wish you didn’t have to go through this ghastly time.” That acknowledges that you are still a sentient being, an active participant in your own drama, not just, all of a sudden, A Helpless Victim’.
2. ‘If anyone can beat this, it’s you’
‘…Funnily enough, it’s not comforting to be told that you have to go into battle with your disease, like some kind of medieval knight on a romantic quest…the idea that illness is a character test, with recovery as a reward for the valiant, is glib to the point of insult. Do say: “My mum had this 20 years ago, and she’s in Bengal now, travelling with an acrobatic circus.” (Though not if that isn’t true.)’.
3. ‘You’re looking well’
4. ‘You’re looking terrible’
5. ‘Let me know the results’
‘… one doesn’t particularly want to feel obliged to hit the social networks the moment one returns from long, complicated, stressful and invasive tests…If people do want to talk about such matters, they really need to be allowed some control over when, how and to whom.’
6. ‘Whatever I can do to help’
‘… That doesn’t mean that help should not be offered. But “Can I pick the children up from school on Tuesdays?” or “Can I come round with a fish pie and a Mad Men box set?” is greatly preferable to: “Can I saddle you with the further responsibility of thinking up a task for me?”
7. ‘Oh no, your worries are unfounded’
‘…they may be founded…(and) even when they are imaginary, there are more subtle ways of offering assurance than blank rebuttal. Usually, an ill person brings something up because they feel a need to discuss it. Denying them that need is a bit brutal’.
8. ‘what does X feel like?’
‘…If someone wants to talk about their procedures or their symptoms, they will’.
9. ‘I really must see you’
‘…the planning thing is an arse. I liked it when people just said, “Can I come by after work this evening?” or, even better, “I’ve got tickets to the theatre on the 25th. Tell me on the day if you can face it.”
10. ‘I’m so terribly upset about your condition’
‘…when your friend is facing a frightening and possibly fatal illness: it’s not, not, not about you. If you’re too upset to be in a position to comfort your friend, send cards, send flowers, send presents. But don’t send your ailing chum a passionate storm of your own wild grief, personally delivered. It’s a little too needy, under the circs.’
‘If you recognise things that you have said or done yourself within this list, don’t feel bad about it, at all. I most certainly have, and I’ve said and done much, much worse too; it took being on the receiving end before I realised what it could feel like. The thing is this: giant illness is a time of great intensity, and even the most cack-handed expressions of support or love are better than a smack in the face with a wet tea-towel. People feel helpless when they see that their friend is suffering. Sometimes – often – they say the wrong thing. But they are there, doing the best that they can, at a terrible, abject time. That’s the most important thing of all. I look back on those grisly moments of ineptitude and clumsiness with exasperated amusement and tender, despairing, deep, deep fondness. The great lesson I learned from having cancer, was how splendid my friends were, whatever their odd little longueurs. They all, in their different ways, let me know that they loved me, and that is the most helpful thing of all. I’m so lucky to have them’.