10 Best Things to Say to Someone Fighting a Chronic Illness

by Steve Calechman Health Writer

Chronic disease: It sounds dire, but it’s actually quite common.

Roughly 60 percent of American adults are living with at least one chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The focus for these folks is getting through each day as gracefully and pain-free as possible.

Meanwhile, families and friends often struggle to find ways to help. Start with the 10 powerful statements that follow. They’re more than sources of comfort; they’ll jumpstart actions that may well have a lasting positive impact on the health and life of your loved one.

How is your pain?

“How’s your pain?”

By saying the P word, you’re validating that their discomfort is real, not something psychosomatic, says Robyn Landow, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. You’re giving the person an opening to talk about the condition without having to worry that it’s coming off as complaining.

Man comforting woman.

“Wow, that sucks.”

“This is one of the most empathetic statements you can make,” Landow says. You’re not trying to fix anything or trying to over-identify with a problem that you have no experience with, both of which can just add to a person’s frustration. It’s short, simple, and keeps the focus where it needs to be—on them.

Young man worried about his friend.

“You’re spending more time in bed, and I’m worried.”

The first part is simply an observation, but it can be very powerful—you’re recognizing what the person is currently living through. The second part confirms that you’re invested. “Human emotion is one thing we can always relate to,” says Sara Davin, Psy.D., director of the Center for Comprehensive Pain Recovery at Cleveland Clinic. “It connects two people on a shared experience.”

Laughing young women, friends.

“If my plans need to change, no problem. I’ll be there.”

There’s constant uncertainty with chronic illness. This statement shows you understand what the person is experiencing and you’re willing to be as flexible as they have to be, which alleviates a source of stress for them. “It’s a validation of their reality,” Landow says, “and shows that you’re prioritizing their needs.”

Talk to me about what is going on with you.

“You need to tell me what’s going on.”

You can’t read their minds or feel their pain. This statement sets a reasonable standard: When they need you, you’ll be there—but you’re not going to guess. “You let them drive the bus,” Davin says. “It’s on them to let you know when things change.”

Cups of coffee.

“I’m getting coffee. How do you take yours?”

It’s well-intended to say “Let me know if you need anything,” but it’s vague, puts the onus on the other person, and is rarely acted on. With this, you’ve narrowed down the options, making it easy to say yes and showing that you mean it when you say that you want to help. “They know you’re legitimate,” Landow says.

Whisper a secret.

“I have gossip. Want to hear?”

Their illness will dominate your relationship if you let it. Offering up something innocuous and fun brings much-needed levity and balance, Landow says. And since small topics can lead to bigger discussions, this is an opening for longer, deeper conversations.

Woman making a salad.

“Can you bring the salad?”

Here’s another way to strike a balance. You’re treating the person like any other family member or friend, asking them to carry out an ordinary task — while still leaving it up to them to tell you if they can’t. People often think that someone who’s ill doesn’t want to be bothered with the mundane, says Davin. The reality is, they often desperately seek it.

Friends going to yoga class.

“Want to do a yoga class?”

The person is sick, not fragile. Yoga is a great way to exercise together because it’s low-impact and combines movement, relaxation, socialization, and fun. Exercise taps into the brain’s pleasure center, Davin says, which provides instant stress relief.

Happy couple who work together at home.

“Let’s divide the to-do list. You pick first.”

Grocery shopping. Dog walking. Grass mowing. The house won’t run itself. If you’re a primary caregiver, resist the temptation to be a hero — it’ll just lead to burnout. Instead, ask them what they can realistically help with, and then hold them to it. “Treat the person who’s ill as a person, not a patient,” Davin says. “They will appreciate it.”

Steve Calechman
Meet Our Writer
Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman is a long-time journalist. He’s written about everything from cooking pasta to desalination systems. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, EXOS and Harvard Health about a range of health and wellness topics, from stress reduction to mindset to building a relationship with your doctor. You can visit his website at stevecalechman.com.