1. I believe you
I already mentioned that this is the most powerful thing you can say to someone with a chronic illness. People who live with chronic illnesses are often met with doubt. Seeing is believing, and when you look outwardly healthy, people have a hard time believing you feel as sick as you say. For a person with a chronic illness, having someone believe them is validating and comforting. It will help them trust you because they are probably worried about whether you and the people in their life believe them or not all the time.
2. Can I come over and hang out?
Asking them if they want to come and hang out can be good too, but sometimes just the thought of leaving the house can be overwhelming for someone with a chronic illness. It takes up valuable energy- leaving little to do the fun activities that they were planning to do outside the home. You offering to come over is a huge gesture. It shows that you want to spend time with them, even if they aren’t up for leaving the house or doing something that takes energy.
Obviously these aren’t things you should say or do all the time, because you probably don’t have time to do this every day. But on a day that you have time, or if you are already running errands for yourself, taking the extra few minutes to help your friend with a chronic illness will make a huge difference for them. For me, sometimes just doing the dishes is enough to make me need to take a nap. And on bad days I struggle to find the energy to get food. Offering to do these favors, whether or not they accept, is a wonderful gesture. It will help someone with a chronic illness feel that you understand what they are going through and care about them. Offering something specific is more helpful than just asking, is there anything I can do? (Not that that isn’t good to say as well!)
4. I know how hard you are trying
This is the opposite of “why don’t you just push through it?” and it is one of the best things you can say. Everyone likes their hard work acknowledged, but most people don’t see just making it through the day as hard work. For someone with a chronic illness a lot of times it really can be. And when I am working really hard just to make myself exercise for 10 minutes or do my biofeedback for the day, that outside encouragement can be the motivation to help get through it.
5. Any kind of hello or checking in after not seeing them for a while
Sometimes someone with a chronic illness doesn’t leave the house for a long time, or misses a lot of school or work. And adding to the difficult of their illness is the feeling of being forgotten or left behind. Out of sight, out of mind, right? So just checking in and saying hi and letting them know you’ve been thinking about them when you haven’t seen them around lately will go a really long way. It will probably make their day, and you will feel good for reaching out to them.
6. You are so strong
Constantly being in a fight with your own body is hard work. People with chronic illnesses usually feel weak from this fight, either physically, mentally, or both. Hearing that they are strong is validation that all their hard work is not unseen. And it can serve as a reminder that they have the strength to keep fighting day in and out.
7. I know how hard this was for you- thanks for using your energy to spend time with me
A friend of mine mentioned that her friend once said this to her after a long phone conversation. I realized how touched I would be if someone said this to me. Saying this helps a person with a chronic illness feel that you understand what they are going through and appreciate having them in your life. It also should make you feel good that someone with a chronic illness chooses to spend their limited energy with you, because it means they care about you!
8. Don’t feel bad if you have to cancel plans at the last minute, I understand
One of the constant feelings that comes along with a chronic illness is feeling guilty or like you are a burden to people in your life. I always feel terrible for canceling plans, and I sometimes do it at the latest possible moment because I am hoping I will feel better. And I sometimes beat myself up about it, even though it’s out of my control. I know this is common for people with chronic illnesses. Letting them know you don’t hold it against them will help alleviate that guilt. And it will make them more likely to make plans with you in the future, because they won’t be afraid of losing you as a friend if they cancel on you too often.
9. Sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing- just a hug or lending an ear
This is true of all people, right? Not just those with chronic illnesses. Sometimes the best, most supportive thing you can do for a friend or loved one is just show your support through a loving hug or letting them vent to you. Hugs are good for your health, so go hug your friends who have chronic illnesses. Usually just being a good listener is more helpful than trying to give good advice when you haven’t experienced chronic illness first hand.
10. I know this isn’t your fault
One of the main themes running through a chronic illness sufferers head is often self-blame. Which is totally unreasonable for most people. But it’s hard not to think, “If I only pushed myself a little harder” or “If I only ate a little healthier” or “If I only exercised for 20 minutes yesterday instead of 10 I would be better.” People with chronic illnesses learn from experience that these “if only’s” are just wishful thinking. Because the illness is not your fault. And so having an external reminder of that fact can really help solidify that idea for people with chronic illnesses, and help them remember that you don’t blame them for it either.
BONUS: When all else fails and you aren’t sure what to say: I wish I knew what to say, but I care about you and I’m here for you
You may never understand what it is like to have a chronic illness, and that is ok. That’s actually good, because it’s not usually a fun experience. But when you can’t think of what to say, it’s ok to say you don’t know what to say. And follow it up with a reminder that you care about them and you are there for them if they need you. Because when it comes down to it, it’s not about saying the absolute perfect thing, it’s about showing that you care.
This list is not meant to imply that these are the ONLY things you should say to someone with a chronic illness. All of these things should get through to someone with a chronic illness and be touching for them, depending on who the person is. Having a good support system is important no matter what situation you are in, and so these kinds of things let the person in your life with a chronic illness know you are on their team.
Meaningful and enriching human connections are incredibly important in today’s society. Buddhism teaches four kinds of beneficial efforts that can promote a flourishing community. Known as “the four methods of winning people over,” they can be expressed in simple, lay person’s terms as: 1) giving a gift of some kind or imparting encouragement and wisdom to the person, removing anxiety and fear; 2) speaking kindly; 3) taking action to benefit another person; 4) going into the midst of the people and working together with them in a spirit of equality.