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How to talk about illness

How to talk about illness

Describing pain and discomfort is difficult, and describing psychological suffering is almost impmossible. Here are some tips for talking about illness with loved ones

Talking about pain is tough. This is why, in 1977, medical researchers at McGill University developed a survey to allow patients to articulate their pain to doctors in a new way. Where formal assessments had previously required a number from one to ten, the introduction of the McGill Pain Questionnaire enabled patients to group together words from different sets, pertaining to movement and intensity. Hot, heavy and gruelling is much more helpful than seven, right?

Speaking with people who are suffering is difficult but close listening is often what is lacking, as identified by the questionnaire. People in pain can often be irritable, distant or greatly in need. Thankfully for most of us, such encounters are infrequent but they do occur and can catch us off guard. Sometimes it’s just difficult to know what to say. Words fail us. In the face of another’s suffering, feelings of guilt can surface or a misguided civility can cause us to clam up or worse, affect our ability to listen properly.

"Speaking with people who are suffering is difficult but close listening is often what is lacking"

A friend has undergone an operation and requires support with daily living. A grandparent has become frail and had a fall. A colleague reduces their hours due to depression and anxiety. These situations are common for most of us but when people "aren’t themselves" due to illness, how do you approach the situation, what do you say?

Just do it

Visit them, or if that’s not possible, just call them. Don’t worry if you weren’t there in their exact hour of need. Let your friend or family member know that you’re pleased to hear their voice now.

Man talking on the phone

Reach out to your unwell loved one

It’s important to let them know you’ve been thinking of them and that you regret the delay but don’t dwell on your trials and tribulations—you’re there to talk about them, don’t steal the limelight!

Let them speak

As we have seen, articulating pain and associated suffering is difficult and historically acknowledged within the medical field. It’s important to be a patient and attentive listener. Your friend will no doubt have a routine response to "How are you feeling?" and the longer they have been suffering the more entrenched it is likely to be. How often have you said, "I’m fine thanks," when you’ve the weight of the world on your shoulders? 

"Your friend may be tired of talking health and gloom—respect their right to be a person first!"

Steer away from routine politeness by asking specific open questions that aren’t too taxing, such as, "So much has happened since we last spoke, tell me what’s been going on with you." Specific information such as diagnosis, symptoms and what the doctors advised is information that should be freely offered, not pursued. Forefront your relationship. Your friend may be tired of talking health and gloom—respect their right to be a person first!

No mind over matter talk, thanks

A positive mental attitude does not knit bones, nor does it alleviate the symptoms of mental health conditions, or solve the difficulties a person may have in accessing health and welfare services for their condition. Don’t wade in with quackery.

You may indeed believe that drinking urine is a cure-all, or a friend of your friend might well have reaped the benefits of a dietary change—but remember where you are and why you are there. Your friend is likely exhausted and sensitive, there is no need to contradict their lived experience. Let them lead the conversation about their health, it’s a small concession to make.

Close listening

It’s a great thing that you were able to call or pay a visit to a friend or family member in ill health. Socialising won’t cure anything—and you mightn’t be met with chatter and fun—but interaction with friends is known to increase the confidence of someone struggling with an recent incapacity, particularly with older people and mobility issues. But what else can be done?

Your sick friend or relative is literally an expert in what it’s like to live with their sickness. If you’ve given them enough room to talk about their recent daily experiences, the things they miss doing or the difficulties of their condition, then you should have a wealth of information about how to assist them.

Woman doing shopping for senior woman

Maybe there are some chores you could help your loved one with

Most of us are proud and don’t like to ask for assistance, nor will we accept help if offered to us outright. Make suggestions to your friend based on your close listening and knowledge of their history. Do they like being in the garden? Maybe you’ve been cutting your own lawn and could bring the strimmer round before you put it away. They could show you what needs to be done. Perhaps their mounting laundry needs dealing with and you happened to be going to the dry cleaners later on? You might have even been shopping on your way to visit and you just happen to have a melting tub of ice cream that needs your combined attention…

"Make suggestions to your friend based on your close listening and knowledge of their history"

Not everybody needs subtle persuasion toward assistance. Your visit could lead you into the complete opposite situation: a long-developed list of wants and needs just waiting to be unleashed! Be gracious. You might not be in a position to meet every request but you can help your friend to make a concrete list, prioritising their needs. You could perhaps cross a few things off for them and think about who to ask for the rest.

Being incapacitated and suddenly reliant on others is a grim cross to bear for anybody but with you as a patient listener with an open manner, you can support a person in ill health to share their load.

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