In honour of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week, I think I’ll snort some nitro spray. Oh, wait. Sorry. I mean, I think I’ll talk about what to say when somebody you care about is ill – rather than the well-meaning (but often annoying) greeting: “You look great!“
When I’m having a really bad day, I’ve often thought that a lovely neck brace or leg cast might come in handy. It would be like sporting a well-recognized outside sign that something is not quite right inside, because my cardiac symptoms are mostly invisible to others.
So instead of gushing “You look great!” – which may actually feel to the patient as if you’re somehow diminishing the seriousness of the diagnosis – you might consider just saying something like this example, courtesy of an Invisible Illness Week essay that I found recently:
“I don’t know what to say. I wish I could fix it all and take away your pain. I don’t know what you would like me to say, and I am so afraid of saying the wrong thing. But know this: I care about you.”
The essay went on to say that, although there is no shortage of friends or family who send patients newspaper clippings about the latest cure for their disease or fresh advice of ‘you should try. . . .’, the simple and precious words ‘I care about you. I am here for you’ are less common than most people would believe.
If you’re a patient with an invisible illness like heart disease, how should you respond to that ubiquitous “But you look great!” greeting? When over 1,200 people took a survey back in 2008 on the Invisible Illness website, real live patients contributed many suggested replies we can try out on those who insist on that greeting. Here is just a small sample of possible responses offered:
- I am hangin’ in there . . .
- Drugs are a wonderful thing.
- I have my good days and I have my bad days.
- I clean up well.
- I have my ‘good’ days – but this isn’t one of them
- That’s a perfect example of how you can never judge a book by its cover.
- Well, I guess I did good job on my makeup!
- “Powder and paint make you what you ain’t!”
- It took a lot of work to look this fabulous!
- If I can’t feel good, at least I am determined to look good!
- I’m having a “good face” day.
- Yeah, my kid thinks it’s cool that I’m an ill person working undercover as a healthy person
If you’re the friend or family member of a patient with an invisible illness, try offering something a tad more helpful than saying “You look great!” to that person. Here’s what I wrote here previously:
“Next time you approach a heart patient, a bereaved person grieving a loss, or those diagnosed with any chronic, progressive disease – what could you do or say instead of gushing over their appearance? One of the most helpful comments to me so far has been some variation of the simple statement:
“It’s good to see you!”
… which is probably fairly accurate, feels pretty fine to hear, and doesn’t elicit the ‘If you only knew…’ reply that we’re silently muttering.”
Emily McDowell’s empathy cards*
♥ This post was also published as a guest post on the Prepared Patient Forum.
Q: Are you or somebody you know living with an invisible illness?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about what to say – or not say – to sick people in my book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“. You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).
“But You Don’t Look Sick…” – about Christine Miserandino‘s classic “Spoon Theory” – a must-read essay!
*Emily McDowell’s empathy cards are wonderful and you should check them out!