What Not to Say

By Simon and Karen Fox
From , Adventures in Caring Foundation, 2000, pp. 11-13

Although there is no such thing as the “proper thing” to say when you visit people who are ill, there are some things you should definitely not say or do. Simply avoiding these foot-in-mouth phrases will help your visits. This list would be humorous if it weren’t for the devastating impact it has on people who are critically ill, chronically ill, or dying:

  • Never invalidate the patient’s experience:  “Don’t worry.” “I know you don’t really feel that way.” “Don’t cry!” “It’s not as bad as you think.” “Don’t talk like that.” “You know very well that’s not true!”
  • No one-upsmanship: “This is nothing, you should have seen Fred when it happened to him.” “When I gave birth to you I was in labor for 48 hours, you’ve never felt such pain.” “You think your stitches are bad, you should see the scar from my gall bladder operation.”
  • Don’t give advice: “What you really need to do is think positive.” “Make sure you take your vitamins.” “You ought to get more exercise.”
  • Avoid guilt trips: “If only you had listened to me this never would have happened.” “Think of all the worry you’ve caused Mom.”
  • Avoid cliches: “It could have been worse.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
  • Don’t ask, “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t ask about the illness. If he wants to talk about it, he’ll bring it up.
  • Don’t feel sorry (no pity parties): “Poor dear, I feel so sorry for you.” “It must be awful.”
  • Refrain from being patronizing: “There, there, it’ll be all right.” 
  • No horror stories (such as surgical mistakes, incompetent doctors, malpractice lawsuits): “I heard that another one of your doctor’s patients just died.”
  • Avoid all forms of negativity, irritation, complaining, blaming or fault-finding – in the patient’s presence.
  • Don’t pretend that the situation is different from the way it really is. Don’t pretend to know the answer when you don’t.
  • Don’t try to cheer someone up. There’s nothing worse when you don’t want to be cheered up. You can’t force someone’s mood to change.
  • Don’t try to rescue people from their problems. Don’t try to fix it or make it all better. You can’t change the fact that your friend or relative has a serious illness – but you can help them cope with the situation.
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