When someone we know is sick, especially with a chronic illness, it can be hard to know what to say to them. Often, people want to appear understanding, sympathetic or helpful—only to come off hurting the feelings of the sick person.
Certain phrases really annoy a lot of us with chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). While they’re usually said with the best of intentions, we hear them so often, and they reflect such a lack of true understanding, that they’re like fingernails on a chalk board.
Some of the things in this article might sound to you like the reactions of someone who is really over-sensitive. Keep in mind that chronic illness inflicts unwanted changes on people’s lives and can really do a number on their self-esteem. Someone who’s had to give up activities— especially a job—may be deeply wounded by, and feel a lot of guilt over, their limitations.
Here are 5 things to avoid saying to someone with FMS, ME/CFS, or other “invisible” illnesses:
Looks can be deceiving. It’s possible, even likely, that we’re just getting better about concealing how we feel, not actually feeling better. Or it might be a single good day after a month of horrible days. Either way, this comment—which may have been intended as a compliment—makes a lot of people feel misunderstood. It’s a judgment made without an effort to truly learn how we’re doing.
Now that you have an idea what topics to avoid, here’s a look at some things that would be especially welcome by people with these conditions.
This shows that you understand the limitations of the illness and gives the person an alternative to canceling plans that may better accommodate their symptoms.
Shopping can be extremely tiring for us, and it can really help to have someone else there to help with things like loading and unloading the car, or trekking back across the store for a forgotten item on the other side. A really good friend will read Holiday Shopping With FMS & ME/CFS and give helpful suggestions while out and about.
This shows that you understand energy levels can vary from day to day and can help your companion feel comfortable expressing his/her limitations.
This is better than asking “how do you feel?” It opens the door to all aspects of life, instead of just physical well-being. Most days, I don’t feel that great, but other aspects of my life might be going really well.
This works better than something like, “Do you need me to….” because it shows a willingness to help without implying the person is incapable or is a burden.
If you’re willing to put in the effort to understand your friend’s/family member’s illness and limitations, thank you! Chronic illness can be lonely, and having supportive people around us is invaluable.