Ministry Resources

So What Do I Say?

Author: Howard and Nancy Stevens

You just found out that a relative, a friend, or an acquaintance has had an accident or is seriously ill.

You want to visit the person, but hospitals and sick people make you feel nervous. You clam up, get tongue-tied, chatter on and on, or say something that you or the patient wish you hadn’t. You care about the person and feel bad about his or her situation, but you don’t know how to express this in a helpful way. Realize that the patient and everyone who cares about the patient, including you, is dealing with his own emotional reaction to the situation.

The Patient

Physical pain and weakness often cause the patient to feel very vulnerable. The person becomes more aware of how fragile life is and how suddenly it can change. The patient may feel that he has no control over his circumstances and may be angry at God, fate, himself, or others. Or he may be anxious and nervous about the future. Physical illness or injury can often lead to depression as the person tries to cope with the illness, with changes in lifestyle and routine, and with the emotions that go with them. Family and social relationships are also affected as each person struggles to cope with his own emotional reaction to the new situation.

Family and Friends

Accept the fact that you, the patient, and everyone who cares about the patient is upset about the illness or injury. It’s normal to be angry, sad, disappointed, or frightened. Acknowledge your feelings, rather than denying them or directing them at yourself, the patient, or someone else. Talking with a trusted friend or a minister, rabbi, or priest may provide insight to help you handle your emotions in a positive way.

Common Reactions

In an effort to identify with the patient or cheer him up, well-meaning family and friends sometimes add to the person’s depression or anxiety without realizing it. The following humorous examples of people’s reactions are based on our own personal experiences during serious, chronic illness and recovery from surgeries. (They are not actual quotes!) You may chuckle a little and find them helpful as you think about your next visit with the patient.

“My husband took the same medicine you’re taking and became a drug addict. Then he went through withdrawal and spent three months in the psychiatric ward.”

“My uncle had the same surgery you did. He did great in the hospital, but as soon as he returned home, he went downhill fast. My aunt put him in a nursing home last week.”

At a loss for words, or in an effort to relate to the patient’s situation, these two visitors blurted out the first thing that came to their minds. They obviously did not think of the impact of their words before they spoke. A negative comparison–that is, comparing the patient to someone who’s in worse shape or who had a bad outcome–does not improve the patient’s outlook and may increase anxiety.

“My aunt heard of a lady who had the same surgery as you. She left the hospital an hour later and went straight to work.”

“My grandmother has the same disease and she never lets it stop her. In fact, she’s still serving in the Peace Corps over in India.”

These visitors meant well and were trying to cheer the patient up. But a seemingly positive comparison–that is, comparing the patient to someone who had an unexpectedly good outcome, experienced a miraculous recovery, or had an unusually upbeat personality–may only depress the patient or evoke feelings of inferiority, guilt, or anxiety. It’s better not to compare the patient with anyone else. Every person is unique.

“I recently read about a doctor who performed 50 brain surgeries before they found out he had never been to medical school. Have you looked carefully at your doctor’s diplomas lately?”

“So what’s the Latin name for your illness and what are the names of all the drugs used to treat it?”

Asking for the details of a surgery or an illness can make the anxious patient feel overwhelmed. Questioning the doctor’s competence when the patient has already expressed confidence in the physician and is satisfied with the treatment may be seen as an attempt to undermine the patient’s recovery. If you do have legitimate questions, you might discuss them with the patient’s family if appropriate, but be sure your questions are necessary and proceed with utmost caution, keeping the patient’s emotional as well as physical well-being in mind.

“A friend of mine has the same disease. I think that he got it because he didn’t chew each bite of food exactly 28 times. He says that’s not the reason, but I’m convinced that it is. So how many times do you chew your food?”

“My grandfather told me that if you tell a lie, or if you don’t say your prayers at bedtime, God will punish you with sickness. So what did you do wrong?”

People often try to find something or someone to blame for a calamity. We all have our opinions. But assigning blame or accusing the patient only adds to the person’s misery. If the patient really did bring his illness on himself, he probably feels guilty enough already. If he thinks that he’s being attacked, he may react in anger or withdraw.

A Few Tips

Okay, we’ve looked at some things not to say to the patient. So now let’s look at some positive responses.

1. Inquire about how the patient is feeling in general without asking for the specifics of the illness. Avoid offering unsolicited medical advice or asking too many questions.

2. Express your concern by saying that you’re sorry that the person is hurting. Remember that you do not have to “fix” the situation. You just have to care about the person.

3. Allow the person to express his emotions. You don’t have to have the answers to his questions or the solutions for his problems. Just listen.

4. If the patient doesn’t want to share his feelings, don’t pressure him. Just your being there shows him that you care.

5. Offer to help in a practical way if it’s possible.

“Can I water your garden for you or drive your kids to school?”

“Would you like me to pick up some groceries the next time I shop?”

“Would you like me to bring you some magazines, crossword puzzles, or videos?”

6. If the patient wants information about how you, family members, or colleagues are doing, briefly share this. Sometimes hearing the mundane details of normal life helps the patient maintain his connection with the outside world. However, avoid bringing up anything that would upset or worry the patient.

7. If appropriate, offer to pray a short prayer or read a short psalm (not Psalm 119), or read the patient’s favorite Scripture passage if he desires you to do so. If the patient declines your offer, do not press the issue. After all, God hears your silent prayers as well as your spoken ones.

8. Keep the visit short. Be sensitive to the patient’s physical and emotional limitations. Others may also want to accompany you, but bring no more than one other person with you to avoid wearing the patient out. And don’t stay too long, especially if the patient has already had several visitors that day. The patient’s desires and well-being should be foremost in your mind.

9. Remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” After all, it’s possible that someday the roles may be reversed and the patient may be visiting you.

What's Next

We would love to answer any question you have or help suggest next steps on your journey.