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Talking with Someone Who Is Chronically or Terminally Ill

It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is chronically or terminally ill. You may be afraid of saying the wrong thing and being unintentionally hurtful. Death and dying are topics many people try their best to avoid thinking about or discussing openly. But avoiding a person you care about because of your discomfort is not the answer. Instead, try following this guidance for talking with someone who is chronically or terminally ill.

  • Acknowledge the illness. Don’t avoid use of the word “cancer,” for example. It is very real to the ill person. Don’t assume it is either a good or bad situation; allow them to tell you about their experience. Often, experiences of gratitude and support can accompany grief and suffering.
  • Be there; offer a listening ear. There’s often power in the simple act of being present.
  • Be honest that you “may not know exactly what to say or how to help.” It’s better to admit that you’re unsure how to be helpful than to pretend you think you have all the answers. 
  • Do not “spiritualize” or suggest what God’s purpose might be for allowing an illness or injury. This can feel like you are minimizing their pain or telling them God wants them to suffer. And the truth is that we don’t know why God allows things to happen.
  • Ask how you can be of practical help to the person. For instance, you may wish to offer to accompany the person to appointments or provide meals.
  • Do not dominate conversation with your own story of illness or recovery. For example: “I remember when my grandpa recovered from his cancer…” or “My uncle died of that very same cancer…” Your intention might be to show you understand what this person is going through or even to encourage them with a story of hope. But this can actually end up making a person who is chronically or terminally ill feel like you don’t understand them. And for someone who is terminally ill, hearing about how someone else recovered might bring more pain than hope.

Suggested resources:

  • Wellspring: a Canada-wide network of community-based centers, each offering programs and services, at no charge and without referral, to anyone, with any type of cancer, at any stage in their journey.
  • Rest Ministries: a Christian ministry for people with chronic illnesses.
  • When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes
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