How to Talk to Someone with a Terminal Illness

Sick woman
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If someone is facing a health emergency or terminal illness, it can be difficult to know the right thing to say. Do you tell them everything will be OK? Change the subject? Share the story of your Aunt Sally, who died of cancer 10 years ago?

The best response is something along the lines of, "I'm so sorry to hear the news. I'll be here to support you in any way I can," sociologists told Live Science. But you'd be smart to tweak this message on a person-by-person basis.

"There are no easy answers to what you should say or what you should do," said Amanda Gengler, an assistant professor of sociology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. [7 Ways to Recognize Depression in 20-Somethings]

If the person is a close friend, family member or even an acquaintance, contact them as you normally would, by phone or email, for instance, the experts said.

"The best advice I can give is to offer to help in concrete ways," Gengler told Live Science. Often, people will say they can help, but the sick person has no idea what they are willing to do. It's easier for someone to take you up on a specific offer to babysit, drive them to treatment, or deliver groceries or meals, she said.

Sometimes, the sick person might just want to binge-watch Netflix for 3 hours with you. "Ask if they want company, or if they would rather have some time alone," Gengler said.

While it's good to reach out, be mindful that the person might be receiving dozens of well wishes, and that it's hard to respond to all of them. Don't expect an immediate, or even any, response.

"If the person reaches out, great," Gengler told Live Science. "And if not, don't get angry about it. Don't make this about you."

There are many reasons a sick person might not answer. They might feel too sick or tired. Also, while it's nice to get sympathetic messages from friends, it also can be emotionally exhausting. Countless somber reactions can emphasize the gravity of the situation, Gengler said.

"There's no easy solution to this, because the answer would obviously not be for other people to be flippant about an extremely catastrophic situation that someone is facing," she said.

But there is a way to take off the pressure. If you're emailing, you can include, "You don't have to answer this, but I'm here if you need me," said Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

What NOT to do

If you learn that a friend is sick, don't evade them, Carr advised.

"In general, people avoid circumstances that make them uncomfortable," she said. "We're so worried that we're going to do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing, and so people often go underground."

But that's problematic, Carr said. "The most important factor that helps people deal with any problem, from terminal illness to divorce, is social support," she said. "It's really important that people are there — just simply showing up can be really powerful." [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

After reaching out, don't minimize their situation by saying, "Look on the bright side: At least it's not X," or "Don't worry; it will be all right," the sociologists said. Also, don't try to one-up them by talking about someone who is worse off, they added.

"You don't want to invalidate their concern — that's going to shut the conversation down," said Linda Francis, an associate professor of sociology at Cleveland State University. "Because, quite possibly, everything isn't going to be all right. Any kind of forced or false cheerfulness is going to make the speaker feel better; it's not going to make the sufferer feel better."

Instead, you can validate their situation by saying, "I'm so sorry; how awful," Francis said.

Then again, it's hard to know how someone will react. One mother at a Ronald McDonald House whom Gengler interviewed disliked it when people said, "I don't know how you do it," Gengler recalled. "She thought, 'I'm a mom; you're a mom — of course you do whatever you can to save your kids.'"

After expressing concern and support, you can ask general questions, such as "How are you doing this week?" This allows the other person to take control of the conversation and share as much or as little as they want. In addition, don't give unsolicited advice, the experts said.

"It's OK to be encouraging, as long as you're not being unrealistic," Francis said. "The important thing is just to express your concern."

Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.