How to Really Help a Sick Friend

What to do—and what not to do—when someone you love gets a serious diagnosis.

Photo by Brian Rea

A quick survey of the greeting-card aisle confirms it: While there are sympathy cards and get-well cards, even the professionals are stumped when it comes to finding the right words for people who are facing a life-threatening illness.

“Serious illness makes us squirm for several reasons,” says Phyllis Kosminsky, Ph.D., a psychotherapist at the Center for Hope, in Darien, Connecticut, which offers bereavement support and help for those dealing with critical illnesses. “It makes us face our fears about our health and the health of those we love, it forces us to confront our mortality, and it reminds us that some things are out of our control.” (Hence the impulse to ask “Did she smoke?” when we hear that someone has lung cancer, even though plenty of people who suffer from the disease have never lit a cigarette.)

Despite our discomfort, 70 percent of us will care for a seriously sick friend or family member at some point in our lives, according to a survey conducted by the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), an organization that helps people living with serious illness. So how do you say and do the right thing for a loved one in need? Real Simple asked the experts for their best advice.

Offer to Help, and Be Specific

“If you say ‘Call me for anything,’ the person probably won’t,” says Kosminsky. “That’s human nature.” Instead, offer to do something concrete, like walking the dog, picking the kids up from school, or bringing dinner on Wednesday nights.

For a friend who lives far away, consider scheduling regular food or flower deliveries. Visit and, sites that let you coordinate a delivery schedule with other well-wishers. If you’re especially close to a sick friend, you can offer to set up a page at This will allow her or a loved one to share updates (so she won’t have to field calls from people who want to know how she’s doing) and lets friends sign up to help with chores and errands.

Should your friend decline your offers, don’t take it personally. Sometimes sick people, like healthy people, just want to be alone. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famed Swiss psychiatrist who was a pioneer in the field of death and dying, believed that it’s important to respect the desires of the patient. If you repeatedly volunteer to help and your friend repeatedly says no, then the offers can become more about your need to get  “credit” than hers to get help.

Follow Through

People generally rally after the initial bad news, but then support may dwindle. Keep offering the help you gave at the time of your friend’s diagnosis. If you’re concerned that your efforts may become intrusive, you can always say “I’m going to keep doing this until you tell me to stop.”

And whatever you do, stay in touch. “I can’t think of anyone who has ever said ‘As time went by and people kept calling me, it was such a pain,’ ” says Kosminsky. If you call, leave the best number and time to reach you (it’s exhausting to play phone tag), and don’t expect a response. Your friend may be too physically or emotionally tired to answer right away. (To avoid a faux pas, consult this list of phrases not to say to a sick friend.)