Knowing what to say may mean saying nothing at all

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It’s normal to be a loss for words when someone we care about is ill. But you can still offer the support, care and love you feel in other ways that will help. Here are some tips on supporting family, friends and even acquaintances who are facing an illness.

We all consider conversation as the “best” method of communication, but in reality, many of us are at a loss at what to say to someone who is ill or facing a difficult health challenge. At these times, conversation can be the last thing on their wish list, but you can provide other support that is valued, helpful and exactly what they need.

Offering support — rather than conversation

Being a good supporter means being there for someone. And that takes no words at all.

  • Call ahead. If someone is in hospital or at home ill, don’t just drop in; rather, phone ahead and let them know you are coming for a visit so that you are not arriving during tests or doctors appointments. Also, a heads up gives the patient time to look forward to your visit and manage their energy level around that.
  • Keep it short. Keep visits short and follow the patient’s lead. Remember that just sitting quietly with someone for 15 minutes, with a gentle hand on a shoulder, adjusting pillows, getting ice chips and so on, can be just as beneficial as talking about the weather, sports scores or the price of gas.
  • Be a helping hand. When you schedule your visit, ask if there is anything that they need — a favourite brand of tissues, hand lotion, magazines or books, snacks as allowed by the doctor (which can be kept in their night table or stored in the ward refrigerator by hospital staff).
  • Practice active listening. Illness can be quite lonely. If you are visiting someone who wants to talk about their situation, listen attentively. Look them in the eye, nod and ask questions to show that you’re interested in what they have to say — even if you’ve heard it all before. Active listening is one of the best ways to show that you’re there.
  • Show your “away game”. When not visiting, there are ways to show ongoing support. Many organizations provide meaningful opportunities for you to show that you care through your own actions; for example, you can join a 5K walk in someone’s name. You can also start a patient care journal and online guestbook for supportive messages, cook a meal for their family, offer to walk their dog, take their kids to a movie or be there for an elderly parent, who may need just as much support as the patient.
  • Scale your involvement. Your relationship to the patient is critical in determining how you can best help them. If you are a close family member or friend, you may be there for them on an ongoing basis. However, you can make a big difference even for a co-worker or neighbour by offering small, thoughtful gestures (like those described above) rather than forcing an uncomfortable visit. Remember that some acquaintances may want privacy rather than company when they’re ill.

Caring for and about those who are not well can be easier and less stressful than you think. Remember the late Tim Russert’s favourite quote, “There is no better exercise for the heart than bending down and lifting someone else up.”


  • Abide, Illness Etiquette II — How to visit a sick friend: website
  • Canadian Association of Student Activity Advisors, Listening Skills: website
  •, 10 Tips to Effective & Active Listening Skills: website
  • Suite 101, Supporting a Sick Friend: website

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