What You Should—and Shouldn’t—Say to a Friend Going Through a Major Illness

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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When a friend receives a life-changing diagnosis, it can be tough to know how to show up for them. Chronic illnesses—like multiple sclerosis and type 2 diabetes, for example—can completely upend a person’s world. So can finding out about infertility due to endometriosis, say, or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.

“A lot of people in this situation will feel isolated and scared,” Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, LCSW-R, therapist and co-founder of the Thru My Eyes Foundation in Harrison, New York (a nonprofit that helps folks with life-threatening illnesses leave video legacies for their loved ones), tells SELF. That’s why your pal needs your support, perhaps now more than ever. “However, that can be tricky, because friends and family—they might not know how to relate,” Dr. Maidenberg says.

For instance, you might automatically respond to your buddy’s health news with, “I know what you’re going through,” when really, all you wanted was to be sympathetic. Or, in an attempt to lift their spirits, you blurt out, “I’m sure you’ll be fine”—which you realize, too late, just sounds dismissive. Some people also opt to stay silent because “they don’t want to say the ‘wrong thing,’” Dr. Maidenberg adds.

As hard as it can be to find the right words, though, offering a verbal pick-me-up can make a world of difference for your friend who’s struggling. So if you’re not sure what, exactly, to say to help them feel better, here are five compassionate and respectful phrases that’ll let them know you’re in their corner.

“I love you, and I’m here for you.”

A gentle reminder that they’re loved and not alone can ease some of the weight they’re carrying, Aleksandra Rayska, PhD, a psychologist at Therapists of New York who specializes in helping people with chronic pain, tells SELF. With a major diagnosis, it’s important to remember that your friend’s entire future and goals might have to change—if, for instance, their arthritis will prevent them from regularly playing tennis. Or something like chronic fatigue syndrome has turned even the most mundane work tasks into herculean efforts.

“The impact of a serious illness can make you feel lonely, so knowing there are people who are willing to listen can be incredibly impactful,” Dr. Rayska says. As simple as this affirmation is, telling your friend you’re there for them can make it easier for them to call or text you when they need support—and hopefully reassure them if they ever feel guilty for “rambling” or “overwhelming you” about their situation, she adds.

“I don’t exactly know what to say, but I’m thinking of you.”

Rather than trying to relate to what they’re going through, both experts we spoke with agree that it’s more meaningful to just be vulnerable and straightforward: Tell them you can’t imagine what the hell a Crohn’s disease flare-up feels like since you’ve never had one, for example, or what their particular experience with cancer is like (yes, even if your aunt overcame it). “It’s usually better to just be open being at a loss for words, rather than forcing yourself to stay positive and optimistic,” Dr. Rayska says.

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