We’ve all been in this situation before: A loved one is struggling with illness or grief, and we completely fumble for the right words to say, or possibly say nothing at all.
It can be disorienting to watch someone you love go through hardship. No one wants to say anything that will make their pain worse, and so we often default to cliché language that isn’t actually all that helpful.
Authors Emily McDowell and Kelsey Crowe of “There is No Good Card for This” cover 7 examples of unhelpful language to avoid when consoling patients or caregivers, and CaringBridge shares what you can say instead.
7 Things You Shouldn’t Say
Here’s what not to say to a patient or caregiver who is suffering:
1. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Why is this harmful? Saying that everything happens for a reason minimizes the patient’s or caregiver’s pain. This statement implies to your loved one that there is a good reason for their struggles, and they should just accept the situation the way it is.
What to say instead: “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. You don’t deserve this.”
This statement shows your loved one that you recognize and validate their pain, and that nothing they’ve done has caused them to deserve what they’re going through.
2. “This is God’s plan.”
Why is this harmful? This statement is problematic for a couple of reasons: First, not everyone is religious, or puts their trust in the same faith that you do. Additionally, even if it’s not your intent, saying this can come off as self-righteous, like you are in control of what is or is not God’s plan.
Finally, like ‘everything happens for a reason’, saying these words can minimize a patient’s or caregiver’s pain by implying that their grievances are all part of a plan that they must simply accept.
What to say instead: “I will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers every day, and sending you good vibes.”
Whether your loved one is or is not religious, it is still very kind to hear that someone is thinking of them and sending them positive energy every day.
3. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Why is this harmful? Let’s start with the basics: The word “kill” simply doesn’t belong in a conversation with someone going through a health crisis. This saying also implies that this hardship should be viewed as a good thing because it provides strength.
What to say instead: “You are a warrior, but I’m always here to lean on if you need me.”
Your loved one arrives every day fighting a difficult battle – they are already so strong. This lets them know that you recognize their strength, and that you’ll be there to support them on the days when they don’t feel so strong.
4. “At least it’s not cancer.”
Why is this harmful? “At least it’s not” statements are insensitive to your loved one’s pain. We can always find something “worse” out there. It’s important to respect that everyone experiences pain differently. Just because you may think another crisis is more painful doesn’t mean they will.
What to say instead: “I’m proud of you for how you’ve been handling this difficult time.”
Focus on what they’re going through, not someone with another health issue. They will certainly appreciate hearing how proud you are with how they’ve been handling the situation.
5. “Just think positive thoughts.”
Why is this harmful? Telling someone in crisis to think positive thoughts is like telling someone with two broken legs to stand up. When going through difficult situations, happy thoughts are often not as available as they once were. Telling a patient or caregiver to think positively can cause them to feel unnecessary guilt or internal pressure.
What to say instead: “Remember that time when we…”
Instead of telling someone to think positive thoughts, take some of the pressure off and bring the positivity yourself. Reminisce a funny memory. Share something hilarious you saw a stranger do the other day. Show them the latest cat video that made you smile. The positive effects of laughter are immense, causing a rush of endorphins, physical relaxation, and boosting the immune system. Plus, it will help take their mind off of their troubles, even if it’s just for a minute.
6. “At least you have one healthy child.”
Why is this harmful? Similar to “at least it’s not cancer”, this statement comes off more flippant than positive, and it can make a caregiver feel like they shouldn’t be upset as long as they have other healthy people in their lives. Right now, it makes perfect sense that their focus is on the child who is unhealthy.
What to say instead: “How is […] enjoying the new school?”
It’s not that you should never ask about your loved one’s other family members. Inquiring about their friends and family can be a great way to take their mind off things. Just avoid asking how their friends and family are coping, and instead focus on more positive questions like how the soccer team is doing, or how the school play is going.
Why is this harmful? Saying something is always better than saying nothing. Silence can make a patient or caregiver feel like you don’t care about them, which is often furthest from the truth.
What to say instead: “I love you.”
If you can’t think of anything else to say, those three words speak volumes. Hand-holding, hugs, and thoughtful gifts are also ways to show your love when you aren’t quite sure what more to say.
Keep on Caring
We’ve all been guilty of saying some variation of these lines before, so please don’t feel bad. By recognizing these unhelpful words and planning out more positive sentiments, you can be confident that you’re being the best support system possible. Now THAT is a positive thought.
Start a CaringBridge Site
CaringBridge is a nonprofit social network dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during a health crisis through the use of free, personal websites. Could you or a loved one benefit from starting a CaringBridge site to keep family and friends informed and get the love, and support they need?
Share Your Biggest “Caring Words” Pet Peeves in the Comments!
We’d love to know what words really grind your gears! Please share any comments that you find unhelpful, and if possible, what would have been better to hear in that moment.