“Just Right” Gestures & Encouraging Words for a Sick Person

As healthy counterparts, we have a duty to care for the sick. Let the doctors, nurses, and physical therapists step in to cover the physical needs. We need to provide encouraging words to our sick family and friends. Words that uphold and preserve the sick one’s inner most spirits, so they can fight their health battle.

It’s common to think of being seriously sick as having cancer, heart issues, or recovering from an accident. This small container doesn’t even begin to touch on the very long list of illnesses that can last a lifetime, or confine someone to bed or a wheelchair.

This article covers how to respond to a person in need, showing them love and support. Don’t forget that looking for ways to brighten their day is another way to show them you care.

At the end of the day, nothing you can do will mean more than your caring and support. The strength to power through the tragedies in life has its foundation in the love and compassion of the magnificent people around us every day. We lose sight of that magnificence so often. The silver lining of a tragedy is that we have a chance to share our magnificence.

-Anonuman 1

Table of Contents

What being sick means

Cancer has always been the affliction that grabs our attention and our empathy. People raise money for research, wear pink, run 5k’s – and thank God cancer has that response. The condition has given us a public platform to learn about how to support someone who is sick in a big way. It has humanized being seriously ill and helped to make us more comfortable with supporting a sick person.

However, there are so many other situations and conditions that need the same love. “Invisible illnesses” such as lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or rheumatoid arthritis are examples of chronic conditions that negatively impact a person’s day-to-day life.

Illustration of sick person in hospital with spouse and doctor.
Being seriously ill means needing outside support from family and friends to get through a health crisis.

How do we, as humans, step up to the plate and comfort and support them? What are the words that we will choose to make a difference? Are we able to expand our vision and see where they need help to give comfort and aid in their life and activities?

Learn how to give the encouragement we would all hope to get in the same situation.

Actions that really show a sick person you care

Often, we don’t have a clue what it means to be dealing with a chronic illness, or being seriously sick. Unless we are in the inner circle of support, we won’t know the difficult decisions that have to be made. We won’t know the fear and anxiety that the person in need is coping with.

What we can do is encourage them on the outside, so they can feel the love and carry on. This outward pouring of support is critical. The stress, isolation, loneliness, and boredom, can all easily lead to depression.

Below is a actionable list to give words of encouragment to a sick friend or loved one in the most postive way:

Illustration of two people having a normal conversation.
Your friends and loved ones will appreciate your efforts to keep conversations normal.

Keep the conversation normal. Avoid talking too much about the medical side. Nothing is more wearing than repeating the details of the treatments or giving updates. Do some normal talk that would go on if there was no sickness or cancer, like sports, movies, or what is happening in the local neighborhood. Avoid any contrast between your life and theirs.

Don’t treat them differently. Try not to see them as “the person with cancer” or walk on egg-shells around them, or treat them like they’re abnormal. Make them feel like the human they are.

Add humor. Don’t be afraid to make them laugh. Humor is part of making life feel normal. They will be grateful for the break from the medical talk.

Distractions are welcome. Anything that can take their mind off of the their current situation is a huge help. Making their day brighter in long stretches of nothing is priceless. Entertain them, come over and chat, or text with them, whatever their health boundary allows. Showing support in this way offers a huge mental health boost.

Illustration of friends visiting a sick person in the hospital.
Good friends show concern and use caring words and gestures for sick friends and family.

Do something with them. Invite them for coffee, take a walk in the park (or push their wheelchair outside). Keep the conversation normal and the activities normal. Try to do “normal” things that you would do with a friend. This will make them feel connected/supported and bring an anchor of “normality” into their life.

Visit. Provide companionship. Sit with them in the hospital, hang out, watch a movie. For sick kids especially, invite friends over to the house, if possible. Have schoolmates bring homework to them and keep them updated on school business. If the person is part of a club, have a member drop in and update them. If not in person, keep the visit up with Zoom, etc.

What if the conversation gets uncomfortable? Don’t cut them off if talk turns to something you weren’t ready for. They may just need to vent, don’t judge them. Listen for needs, ask them if they want help with anything they mentioned. If the conversation concerns you, talk to another adult regarding any fears you may have.

Withhold comments. Just listen. Let them talk about whatever they want to. Responses that you think are comforting may not be. Some people find dropping an inspirational line to be cheesy, and any faith message hard to swallow in the moment of serious illness. Be a silent sounding board for them, it is what they need the most.

Respect their boundaries and energy level. They might be exhausted from dealing with their ordeal. Keep the conversation short, unless they seem to be at ease. Watch body language and take note when it’s time to give them their space.

Illustration of a neighbor bringing food to a sick friend.
Never stop showing your support for a sick family or friend – they need you for the long haul!

Check on them. Make sure they are taking care of themselves. Reach out and invite them for coffee, or drop off a gift or a meal (but only if you are close enough in their support circle to do that). Or invite them to come over to get out of their house.

Educate yourself. Learn a little bit about their cancer or sickness so you can support them better. Join their journey for hope and a positive outcome.

Do not assume that your friends “need to talk”. You may not be the person they want to talk to about their deepest fears. If you try to force them to talk, they will avoid you. It will be a missed opportunity for both of you when help is needed later.

Give them space but circle back. Express your concern for them, keep communication open, let them know you still very much care. You might get the same response from them every time, but they will remember that you were there for them.

Don’t lose touch. It’s so easy to distance yourself from them and what is happening in their life. Overcome your own feelings of awkwardness and being scared, and keep the focus on them. Keep reaching out and staying in contact (with respect to their current status, of course). Your efforts will be appreciated.

Understand “hospital time”. Be patient when they don’t immediately call you back to return messages. Time moves differently in the hospital. They may have therapy, doctor visits, and resting.

Words and actions that don’t help a person dealing with an illness

When some people are sick, they just want to be left alone. They don’t want to be asked how they are or what they are doing or if they feel better. It can make everything worse being bombarded with constant questions.

Here is guidance on words to avoid when talking with a sick person:

Don’t demand details, don’t show up uninvited or send countless messages and voice calls. Know when to leave the family alone.

Do not offer alternative treatment ideas, advice, or recommendastions unless asked (including what you read on the Internet).

Do not ask intrusive medical questions or details of an accident.

Do not tell them that they are doing anything wrong. Respect their feelings and decisions.

Don’t ask how their doing every single time you see them. Look for other words besides “How are you feeling? They will be asked that phrase a thousand times.

Know the difference between “nosy” and genuinely concerned.

Respecting the privacy of a sick friend

Being sick can wear a person down. Chemo and cancer treatments result in enormous fatigue that lasts for days. The logistics of visiting doctors, maintaining a job, other family responsibilities, leave a person exhausted. I won’t even mention the financial stress.

Even a person who likes to be around people will need down time, and won’t have the energy for visiting. Having a continuous train of people calling can be too much. And by all means, stay away when the person is in a very bad state.

Below is a diagram of what I call, “The Circle of Support”. It shows where you fit in to your relationship with the sick person.

Circle of Support diagram for a sick person and their family.
Know where you fit in the Circle of Support. Respect privacy while still showing that you care.

Know your place. Realize if you’re part of the “inner circle” or not. Immediate family will be allowed to help in a way that neighbors will not. Yes, friendships could become deeper because of stepping up and helping the family in their time of need. However, forging a deeper friendship may not be what the family desires, or at least at this time.

If at any point in time the family or sick person pulls back, let them. Their needs should drive your behavior. Just stay close enough that they know you are with them throughout.

Your job: OFFER support (food, chores, errands, etc) but LISTEN to the response. If the support does not match the needs, it is not support. Not all offers of help are needed or appreciated.

Listening may well be the help they need most.

Emotional support from afar

Fielding nonstop questions from neighbors, friends, and relatives can be exhausting. Luckily, there are online platforms that can make this burden easier on everyone.

CarePages and CaringBridge are websites that let you set up an account and post updates about someone’s health condition. Privacy is maintained because you control who gets to sign up and see the information. Anyone far and near can get updates as you choose to make information known.

Illustration of person making a phone call to a sick family member.
Stay in touch with a sick friend or family member, even if it has to be done over the phone or messaging platform.

Members can leave inspirational comments and encouraging words without feeling they are bothering the family (comments can be approved first).

On my list of small things to do for a sick person, I list filling someone’s car up with gas. There is more to it. There was a person I knew whose mother was going through cancer treatments. It was a small town, and if she stopped at the local gas station, there was always someone asking her how things were going. She despised it so much that close friends gassed up for her to avoid the town “gossips”.

Ideas to bring joy into a sick person’s life

If you’re looking for an idea beyond the ordinary for a sick person, give some some of these ideas a try. All of these actions are nice things to counter balance the fear and uncertainty of the day.

Incredible experiences. Foundations like Make-a-wish can provide a family with an uplifting experience in the midst of chaos. Our family trip to Hawaii reunited my family in a way that indescribable.

Mini-adventures. An outing to a park or playground makes a good short getaway for a child who still needs activity and fresh air. Bring zoo animals in. Hire a emotional support animal. Sing karaoke! Do fun things within their energy level.

Be a food hero. Seek out the flavors, healthy foods, and brands that the sick person can try. So often, a family is desperate to find something palatable the sick person can eat.

Illustration of boy with superhero cloak on on back of adult; adult male and boy holding a big heart.
There are lots of unique and novel ways to brighten a person’s life when they are seriously ill.

Porch photos. This was a “thing” during COVID. Professional photographers, looking to drum up business, took photo from peope’s porches. If the child has a low immunue system, consider visits from their porch as a fallback way to keep personal visits going.

Make a “covid shack”. During the Covid-19 Pandemic, a local nursing home converted a building to a safe visiting center. There was a dividing wall where family could see their loved ones, without the fear of spreading germs. Each room was wiped down in between visits.

Music therapy. This is a thing, I wrote an entire article on it! Depending on the stage of comfort the sick person needs, hire a harpist, or enjoy “singing bowls” – it’s a whole new level of relaxation.

Add a special touch to every day meals. Throw in a fancy dessert, make a bento box, arrange for presentation, make “donut people” or serve the meal on good china. Build a beautiful tablescape for their delight with candles and fresh flowers. Serve fancy pretend drinks with little umbrellas and fruit. There are lots of options that can add a smile to a person’s face who isn’t feeling the best.

Illustration of friends and family putting up a Christmas tree.
Keeping traditions going, like helping to put up a Christmas tree, can really help with rough holidays.

Decorate a room. Make a poster to cheer them on at the hospital, with signatures from everyone they know to show their support. Make the room cheerful by decorating with streamers and bright balloons (if allowed by the hospital).

Decorate a view from their window. Position fun things they can see from one of their house or apartment windows. Periodically change up the arrangment, complete a “story line” or any other idea you can brainstorm. Don’t forget adding bird feeders and hummingbird feeders to add more interest for a bedridden patient.

Provide props, accessories or aids. Go out of your way to find fashionable p.j.s, blinged up support aids, or beautiful wigs for hair loss. If they’re going to be sick, they might as well look good!

Pleasant surprises. Lead your friend or family member to resources like Negu joyjars for hospitals, a group that brings joy to children in hospitals. There are other groups and organizations out there ready to add some sunshine to your loved one’s day.

Help decorate for the holiday or season. One sick person going through cancer treatments commened, “one of the best things someone did for me is come over with her husband and teen children, get my Christmas tree down from the attic, set it up and put the lights on.” She felt that it made Christmas normal for her family that year.

Run holiday errands. Sick people don’t have the energy to celebrate the holidays, let alone the errands that go with it. One woman appreciated that she could still pick up a few gifts with the help from others. Picking out gifts themselves is huge. If they are not strong enough to go shopping, maybe they can armchair shop if you help narrow down or suggest choices.

Supporting a sick friend long term

So many people said “If you need anything…” Then didn’t do anything, or disappeared. I don’t think they’re being inconsiderate, they’re just moving on when they can’t help in the moment.

From the perspective of the sick person and/or their family, their clarity of thinking is taking a major hit. I know, because I’ve been there. Often, it’s hard to know what you need, you’re so overwelmed you don’t even know what to ask for.

The life of the sick person and their family is about to be turned upside down, for months or possibly years.

Hang in there, and be the friend/encouraging person they need. During this difficult time in their lives, they will remember the people who really made a difference.

I hope with all my heart the best to you and your family. – Renee

Footnotes

1 Anonuman. “LPT Request: How to help family friends who just found out their kid has cancer?” Reddit Life Pro Tips forum, 10 August 2016. Reddit Groups, https://www.reddit.com/r/LifeProTips/comments/4x1jkt/lpt_request_how_to_help_family_friends_who_just/.


Renee Cavvy
Renee Cavvy

Renee pulls no punches when it comes to challenging the social norms of gift giving. Her mission: putting an end to meaningless gifts and cutting through the fluff. This midwest mom offers novel and creative ideas to do gift giving better!