What to Say to Patients and Caregivers Besides ‘I’m So Sorry’

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care, hope, support

CaringBridge users confirm what Ryan O’Neal said to Ali MacGraw all those years ago: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” (Readers born after 1970 can catch “Love Story” on Netflix.) While it’s a reflex to respond to news of a cancer diagnosis, stroke, illness, injury or any health crisis with an automatic, “I’m so sorry,” patients and caregivers on the receiving end of these words may wish for something less automatic and more hopeful.

‘I’m So Sorry’ Can Feel Discouraging

One CaringBridge author living with cancer said, “I appreciate everyone’s comments, but when I read, ‘I’m so sorry,’ so many times, it can feel a little discouraging.” In general, messages that make patients and caregivers feel less isolated mean the most. That’s the essence of social support … helping people stay connected at a time they feel very disconnected from normal life.

6 Positive Expressions of Support

Here is a selection of comments recommended by CaringBridge users that expresses support simply, without defaulting to the over-used response of “I’m sorry:”

  • “This stinks.”
  • “I wish things were going better.”
  • “This must be hard news for you to share.”
  • “I wish this was not happening to you.”
  • “When do you see yourself clear for coffee? Or wine?”
  • “I love you.”

An Important Note …

The worst thing to write or say to patients and caregivers is nothing at all. So if an “I’m sorry” slips out, it’s OK. In the “Comment” section directly below, please feel free to add to the list of positive expressions of support.

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Post a Comment

Robin Weatherly Apr 18, 2017 9:49pm
What can I do to give you a hand?
Mary E. Rossow Apr 18, 2017 10:17pm
"... well, count me in on your cheerleading squad!"
John Apr 18, 2017 10:23pm
That's a tough break.
Jerry Miller Apr 18, 2017 10:24pm
In my view, none of the "6 Positive Expression" is as sensitive and compassionate as simply "I'm sorry" followed by something like "How can I be helpful?" or "You are loved."
Helen Graziano Apr 18, 2017 10:45pm
You can say what can I do? When we lost our son our dear neighbors cut our lawn and hosted two lunches for the afternoon and evening visitations at the funeral home for our many many out of town guests. This will never be forgotten.
Elaine Sokoloff Apr 18, 2017 11:02pm
Offer specific help rather than "if there's anything I can do." If you can do something say, "I'd like to do this for you"... I have found that doing dishes and clearing at a wake or memorial if it is not fully catered can be one of the best things that can be offered. Friends have said that many will bring food, but few think to help clean up, and I've done dishes and set up where that was the most obvious way that help was needed. If you do massage or bodywork, that is an incredible gift to offer as well.
D haegeman Apr 18, 2017 11:17pm
Time for you now to take care of business so you can get on with your life.
Peter Moss Apr 18, 2017 11:28pm
These suggestions are very useful. Only the other day I met a lady who I know reasonably well in our village. She was leaving her house with her husband and I said "I was just thinking I had not seen you for a while" her response was "I have breast cancer, I am going for my first treatment" . I was taken aback and could only utter "I am sorry", however I did manage to say "I will pray for you" before they said goodbye. I will be better prepared next time this happens. Thank you.
Sue R Apr 19, 2017 12:22am
Shortly after my husband died, the comment I most appreciated was "Do you want to talk about him?" YES... I did & do...all the time!
Debbie Drill Apr 19, 2017 1:20am
If you can follow through with this, the best thing you can say is "When can I come over and spend some time with you?" The best gift is the gift of your presence, sharing time and stories, laughing and crying together.
Grace Apr 19, 2017 3:09am
"I will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers."
Warren C. Plauche Apr 19, 2017 3:41am
My first response was - I'm surprised, I'm anxious, I'm angry at this thing, I love you!
Betty Wolfson Apr 19, 2017 4:12am
I love You. I am here for you. My new title, Assistant, at your Service. Please if I 'can be of assistance' in any way, don't hesitate to ask! This is an open invitation and I will say yes whenever I am able! Remember, you are greatly Loved. ( There is a difference between asking to serve or assist, rather than Help. Sometime the word 'Help' comes with a sub text that registers as 'I can't do this.' Assist or service is more like, ' You could lift this cumbersome box alone, but wouldn't two more hands feel safer and go a lot quicker?!? )
Roxy Apr 19, 2017 4:28am
We told a friend who lost his wife (and my best friend) that our porch and fresh ice tea was always open. He took us up on it and we have great memories of unexpected , unplanned visits. This Same friend wrote these words to me , when my mom passsed. It was priceless. "May sweet memories soon replace the present pain you feel".
Pamela Lear Apr 19, 2017 4:39am
This is great advice. I dislike when people say "I'm sorry" because, as you mention, it is automatic and represents their surprise and discomfort more than anything. Also, what is the recipient supposed to respond to "I'm sorry?" It's awkward. The most important thing is to find a personal way to say that you care and that you are there to be supportive in whatever way is needed. HOWEVER, I think it is also inappropriate to say "What can I do to help?" as that puts the onus on them to remember your offer and to find a way for you to help - - that can feel overwhelming. It is generally better to say "I'm here for you", "I'll check in to see what I can do", "Call me anytime", etc., anything this is not a question. Ultimately, just be present, listen without judgment or offering advice, and check in without any obligation for them to respond.
PAMELA OBLEIN Apr 19, 2017 5:00am
"I don't know what to say" is MUCH better than saying nothing!!! Also..." You don't have to go through this alone... I'm here" is a great positive expression of support!
Norma Miller Apr 19, 2017 5:40am
Call me any time if you need to talk. I love you.
Ann Marie Apr 19, 2017 5:42am
I'm here for you in whatever way you might need.
Dottie Apr 19, 2017 5:52am
How can I help? Is there anything I could do that would help you? I will be with you as you journey through this. Pray with that person rather than just for them.
Linda Tyson Apr 19, 2017 6:30am
These are all helpful ideas. Yesterday I made a visit and also took a thinking of you type card in which I added a few comments. "God is already there" and "I love you" were shared. Person wrote a text later to say she liked that God is already there as she was awaiting surgery for cancer. A phone call with "How are you doing?" is often helpful if a visit isn't possible.
Debra Hodgson Apr 19, 2017 6:41am
We are praying for you! Love you lots! Keep your chin up! You are one strong girl/boy!
Sally Cook Apr 19, 2017 6:46am
"I'm here for you."
Allen Apr 19, 2017 7:10am
What can I do to help ? How can I help you through this ? What do you need from me ?
Brian Marks Apr 19, 2017 7:44am
we hate this for you! you don;t deserve this! lets pray together! lets celebrate when it's over! tough break but we can fight together!
Eva F Apr 19, 2017 7:54am
A positive comment could be ... "I'll be praying for you all."
Helen Graziano Apr 19, 2017 8:07am
Sue R and Debbie Drill: great suggestions. Spend some time with the person in the inner circle. And in the case of a deceased person, let them talk about that person. Laugh and cry at the same time. We did.
Janene Burkard Apr 19, 2017 8:21am
You are in my prayers as you travel this journey. I'm here for your. Call if there is something I can do for you. (And don't forget the hugs ...... lots of hugs.... personal contact with those who like the feeling of being encircled by arms that care)
CAROL GURIOLI Apr 19, 2017 8:47am
thank you for telling me. I am here for you. May I pray with you? (If it is not comfortable I can always pray for them later but it is often nice to receive a prayer in person.) Is it okay to check in to see if there is any way I can be of assistance?
Judy Schield Apr 19, 2017 9:02am
Is there anything else, besides praying for you, that I can do to help you?
Fran Apr 19, 2017 9:07am
I believe in saying sincerely and genuinely how sorry you are. Sending a "thinking of you" card, offering prayers, asking with genuine concern, "how are YOU?" Be prepared to listen & response except a heart to heart hug speaks volumes.
bow walker Apr 19, 2017 9:09am
One of the things I often say, "No words can express my feelings. What is it I can do?" I also say, "Would you like to talk about 'anything'?" and there are times when having known the person we talk about 'life after here'. There is often humor, seriousness and an array of various things that are said depending on how well I know the person. I have had many experiences so, it is not difficult for me to assure people (from my own experience) of life after 'here'. Sometimes, it is simply a sincere hug and eye to eye contact. Our quiet spirit can say volumes. I think being your authentic self in awareness of the sacred moment is best and I like prayer. Offer whatever peace we can, even just a gentle touch, holding someone's hand. Be in the moment with sincerity , trust GS (Great Spirit/God) to Divinely guide you and I always end by saying, "Remember, no matter what happens everything will be alright." and I do mean this. Be wholly in the sacred moment and your heart will always know what to do (my experience). Share stories now to be prepared for later...Blessings all, and may all of our transitions be full of LOVE and LIGHT and inner peace of transforming to the next place. ALL life takes the ultimate journey. A'ho/Amen. PEACE BE WITH YOU. <3
Jennifer Murphy Apr 19, 2017 9:18am
How can I help you?
Diane Keefe Apr 19, 2017 9:27am
I wish this wasn't happening to you and am looking forward to when you are feeling strong. Can't wait until you are back in the saddle again! I miss seeing you!
Rose Garbulinski Apr 19, 2017 10:06am
When my brother came to live with me he brought his large vehicle. We have three cars and we have a single driveway and it is short. My neighbor offered his driveway for my brother to park his vehicle. That was huge. A couple of months later, he did pass away and three of my neighbors brought over enough food for us for a week and also had masses said. They did ask if there is anything they can do, just ask. My other friends also brought over food. They also talked about all the good attributes my brother had - all good things, it was such a comfort! I will never forget it.
Donna Fike Apr 19, 2017 10:10am
This information is great. The only other response I have heard since my husband has had a stroke, is: I want to help or I know you must be struggling, what can i do to help? In many cases the answer (my answer) is 'We would appreciate your prayers'.
Ronnie Weiss Apr 19, 2017 10:25am
I'm here to support you. Let me know if you need to talk
Den Apr 19, 2017 10:34am
Keep the Faith
joe momma Apr 19, 2017 10:43am you holdin' up??........
Christy A Larsen Apr 19, 2017 11:31am
If you need to talk to someone, I'm available any time.
Taylor Watkins Apr 19, 2017 2:29pm
"How can I help? May I drive you to your treatments?" "May I bring you dinner? What are some of your favorite foods right now?" "May I drive your kiddo to soccer practice or ballet lessons?" "I would love to pray for you."
Mimi Neff Apr 19, 2017 2:37pm
My pet peeve, is people who say "Sorry for your loss" when someone has died and "sorry for your loved one" after a diagnosis. There must be better expressions of sympathy. These are trite knee jerk reactions with no empathy for what the person or family is going through. Lets try to make these comments a thing of the past and come up with more comments like those below.
Shirley George Apr 19, 2017 3:02pm
What can I do to help? I will be keeping in touch.
Janet ILTIS Apr 19, 2017 3:07pm
I wish this wasn't happening to you. I think if it was me I would like some help at home so I'd like to help you out at home. I want you to know I am here for you and would be happy to do whatever you need.
Nina Galin Apr 19, 2017 3:38pm
Thanks for this, very helpful. Thanks for reminding me to focus on connection.
Janice Albuquerque Apr 19, 2017 4:42pm
This is a difficult time, if you need anything at all, even to just talk, call me. Friends are forever, during the good and the difficult times. I`m here for you to help during these trying times. I and my family will be praying for you everyday to have the courage and hope to win this battle.
Nancy Fleury Apr 19, 2017 4:44pm
If someone ill and living alone, call them and offer to run to the store, offer to make them something to eat and ask what time is best to bring it over, when is a good time to visit, if they feel up to it. Caregivers often need time of respite, and could use someone to stay with the ill person for several hours. Be specific with offers to help such as : I can help with the grocery shopping or errand running on certain days and times, or let me give you a break from caregiving tomorrow afternoon around 2pm as examples.
Sheila Apr 19, 2017 6:11pm
God is with you so that He can give you strength and gentleness. He will never leave us alone.
Carol Stafford Apr 19, 2017 6:32pm
I don't know what to say, but how can I help you?
Shawn m wilson Apr 19, 2017 8:48pm
I agree with Pamela Lear. I recently lost my husband to cancer. I lost my mom to this horrific disease too. Hospice offers suggestions. It is always better to say what you can do to help. Such as I'll bring dinner Monday. I can drive you etc. many people don't want to bother you.
Joyce Munger Apr 20, 2017 10:40am
1) My heart strings are with you and your family. 2) Please know my arms surround you even when I'm not at your side 3) I'm sending you a virtual bouquet trusting it will 'color' your world today. 4) You are so precious...we will walk through this journey together. 5) My prayers will continue to surround you daily.
martel emmons Apr 20, 2017 11:45am
I'm sorry but what is wrong with "I'm sorry"? "This stinks"? Yeah, that's much better. I guess I'm getting old or something but if this is where we've come in our "progressive" society, that's a problem. But I'm probably wrong. I'm sorry.
Terra Apr 20, 2017 2:24pm
After my cancer diagnosis, some of the words I appreciated most were really practical observations, like, "Well, this is certainly inconvenient." Because it was! Sometimes I needed acknowledgement of the obvious disruptions to my life, in addition to the heavy emotional words of support.
Jenifer Funk Apr 21, 2017 3:37pm
Walking with you in sorrow.
Elug J-Lynne Apr 21, 2017 7:06pm
So face one day or moment at a time and keep me in the loop.
Ivan Mulder Apr 22, 2017 7:50pm
For a death, ask "What is a favorite memory you have of....?" When my wife was in the hospital for several months recovering from total paralysis, visits from immediate family members were appreciated the most. She preferred not have others see her in her desperate condition. However, visits from family and others are what kept me going. The least appreciated thing people said in her presence was, "Just be patient!"
Ann Peitsch Apr 25, 2017 1:53am
I/we are praying for you !
Jo-Ann Bach Apr 25, 2017 6:00am
I will keep you in my prayers daily as you travel this journey. Feel free to contact me for assistance.
TAMMY TURK Apr 25, 2017 2:35pm
Can I give you a hug? I remember being at the hospital with my granddaughter that was in DKA and just diagnosed with T1D while babysitting her and her siblings and her parents were on a trip to MX and trying to get home ASAP. The mother of a close friend of our daughters that I did not actually know came up to check on us and pray for me and asked if she could give me a hug. It was something I really needed right then as my husband was watching the boys and could not be there with me.
Vicki Ebat-Selke Apr 26, 2017 2:00pm
How are you feeling now? What do you need right now? Do you want to talk about it - or not. Want to get an ice-cream cone? (coffee, cookie, Jamba Juice). If not today ask if they would mind you asking again later. Suggest next week or month etc. and let them decide. If you don't hear from them do something non intrusive to let them know you're thinking of them - leave a helium balloon or flowers and a note on the porch. Email - or even better send a card snail mail with the same offer for an ice cream cone etc.