what to say when you don’t know what to say


|  A few of the perfectly on-the-nose Empathy Cards cooked up by Emily McDowell  |

I’ve always harbored a secret fantasy that I’d create a line of cards for awkward family scenarios. (See, e.g., a Father’s Day card for a dad to whom you sort of regret being genetically linked.)

So, when I saw what Emily McDowell has been up to, I knew I had to share. She’s created a whole line of cards for those tricky life situations you want to acknowledge, but don’t exactly know how, starting with a series for people with chronic or serious illness (aka, the people for whom a “get well soon” card doesn’t make a lick of sense). As a person who could be a recipient of many of Emily’s fantastic cards, I can tell you they’re just about perfect. (Especially that one about promising not to tell me about treatments you found on the internet. Seriously. Just…no.)

One of the (many, many) hard things about these big, hairy health issues (chronic illness, cancer, even infertility…really anything that can’t be cured by chicken soup or a Z-Pak) is that even the most well-meaning friends and family don’t really understand it. They can’t. You look fine most of the time, you act fine most of the time (we sickos get pretty good at putting on a show)…so it’s hard to know what to say or how to help. Believe me, I get it.

But the thing is, I lost friends when I got sick. Not a lot, but a few. They didn’t know what to say or how to act, so they just sort of faded away. And I let them. It sucked.

Instead of fading away, here’s what I suggest: show up. It’s that simple. Just show up, in whatever way you’re able. Send a card. Bring a cupcake. Ask questions. You don’t have to have the answers; just ask the questions. I’ll never volunteer the gory details about what’s up with my health, but if a friend sits with me over a cup of coffee and asks me to explain it to her, I always will. Because I want you to understand…but I need you to ask, because I don’t want to overshare, or overburden, or bore you to tears. Say, “If you’re okay talking about it, I’d love for you to explain what’s happening so I can be a better friend to you.” Wow, would those words be healing.

And then? Drop it. As hard as it will be, resist the urge to treat her like a patient. Plenty of other people have that covered, and no one wants to be The Sick Friend. Be the person who lets her feel like her old self. Because underneath the piles of blankets and pill bottles, that’s exactly who she is. Sure, ask how she’s feeling occasionally, and let her know you’re there whenever she needs to vent about another bad doctor’s visit or how her new meds are making her gain weight.

But your friend doesn’t need you to be her mother or her doctor – she needs you to be her friend. The same friend she had before the shit hit the fan.

So, show up with a pair of cappuccinos and resume your multi-part discussion of the best all-girl hip-hop groups from the ’90s. Call just to tell her about something funny that happened at work, or text her a string of rando emojis. Or occasionally, when you know she’s having a bad week (which you’ll know, because you’ve been showing up), show up with a casserole.

Don’t wait for her to ask, because she probably won’t. Just show up.


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7 comments on “what to say when you don’t know what to say

  1. msesq

    I am recovering from a year of treatment for breast cancer and you hit the nail right on the head!

  2. shoppingsmycardio Post author

    Msesq: Well that is just wonderful news – both that you’re recovering and that you agree with me 😉 Bet you’ll be perfectly happy never to see one of those damn pink ribbons ever again!

  3. jillian

    love love this! as someone with a chronic disease it was pretty frustrating at first to have to explain (again) why i wasnt drinking at a party (it made me really really ill and it just wasnt worth it)… or have “friends” who just stopped inviting you out to parties at all. i promise i can still be fun even if i dont drink! 🙂 anyhoo not sure what you are dealing with but whatever it is im sure it sucks but thank the lord baby jesus for the friends who DID show up. those are the keepers anyways 😉 xo

  4. shoppingsmycardio

    J: Right?! Explaining away dietary restrictions over and over again is just rotten, any way you look at it. Tipping my glass of sparkling cider to you, my dear.

  5. Roxanna

    Thank you Becky. I don’t have a chronic disease, but I do have a friend who just lost a child and a parent in the same week, and I haven’t been as in touch as I should because I don’t really know what to say. I’ll take a cue from you today and call her just to talk.

  6. shoppingsmycardio

    Oh, Rox…I can’t even begin to imagine. I’m really glad you took from this what I was hoping, which was that the advice really wasn’t limited to illness. We’re surrounded by impossibly hard things every day, and we almost never know what to say when faced with them. Just be a presence, let her know you’re there. She’s going to need a place to feel normal, and a place to go crazy occasionally. Let her know you’re there for both, and then back it up.

    And PS – she may not answer the phone. I almost always get voicemail when people are dealing with grief…I think the calls are all just too much to take for a lot of people. So, you might leave her a caring voicemail and then try again in a week. Or if she’s local, stop by.

    You’re going to do a good thing for your friend by calling her today 🙂

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