Caught In The Labyrinth of Illness

By Megan O’Mara


The narrative of the chronically sick is tragically underrepresented and vastly important. Essays like “The Slow Death of Compassion for the Chronically Ill” and “The Spoon Theory” all attempt to explain to the healthy what it means to be chronically ill. For young adults and pre-med students in particular, finding out someone close to you has a chronic illness is surprising, and in many cases: awkward. So many healthy people are at a loss for what to say to their loved ones caught in the realm of illness. Fear not. We at Pre-Med magazine worked with numerous support groups as well as Arts For the Cure on what to say, (and what not to say) to chronically ill patients, from chronically ill patients.

What to Say:

  1. “ I’m going to the store. What can I pick up for you?”

When one is chronically sick, everyday tasks such as going to the grocery store or taking a shower seem monumental. Specific offers of help (especially if you’re already going somewhere,) rather than phrases like “Let me know if I can do anything for you,” are invaluable. Once, my (now) best friend offered to take me to the hospital because she knew I didn’t have a car. To date, it was the kindest act of human compassion I have ever experienced.

  1. “ It’s okay if you have to cancel last minute. Really.”

It may surprise you to learn that the worst part of a chronic illness is not dealing with symptoms, its the psychological aftermath of attempting and failing to live normally. The guilt of last-minute cancellations is overwhelming, even if it can’t be avoided.

  1. “I can’t imagine being in your situation. I’m here for you.”

Validating the other person’s emotions, and reminding them they are not alone is a way of expressing you care for them. When it boils down to it, that’s all that really matters.

  1. “Do you want to go out? Or would you rather watch a movie and bake cookies?”

There are good days, bad days, and in-between days. On those in-between days, spoonies often want to spend time with friends, but may not have enough physical and emotional energy to both go out and spend time with friends. Offers to spend time where they feel comfortable and don’t have to spend a lot of energy to get places will be greatly appreciated, trust us.

  1. “[Insert joke here]”

Don’t get too caught up in the supposed fragility of your loved one. They are, after all, human. Trust me, they will love a joke. If you don’t have one on hand, search “chronic illness cat” on your phone and hand it to them. You may not find it funny, but they definitely will.

What Not To Say:

  1. “But you don’t look sick!”

This was hands down most negatively rated phrase on our list. 95% of chronies rated this as “very annoying” and “extremely common.” Despite coming from a place of sympathy, and seemingly a reassurance that despite what’s going on the inside, they still look put together. However, it serves as a frustrating invalidation of the persons pain and symptoms. Seeing is believing, and constantly reminding them of the disconnect between their reality and healthy people’s reality roughly translates to “I don’t believe you.”

  1. “You should just exercise/get over it/move on (etc.)”

Being ill is not a choice, and you should never tell someone how to deal with their own illness. You can’t just “get over” true chronic illness. Phrases like these are insensitive and rude.

  1. “I wish I had the luxury of staying in bed all day.”

People forced to spend their life from a bedside want nothing more than to be active in the world. It’s not a luxury to stay in bed – it’s an unfortunate necessity.

  1. “Oh, my cousin’s friend’s sister’s girlfriend had that. She had magical moon crystals implanted under her nose and she’s fine now. You should just do that and you’d be fine.”

Unless you are a medical professional or a chronically ill person has asked for your advice, chances are the magical moon crystals, (vegan diet, supplement, or any other unsolicited medical advice) would not fly with the doctor. Thanks for trying, though.