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5 Things to Say (and Not to Say) to a Sick Friend

A guide to the best — and worst — things to say to someone who's ailing or grieving

Illness and death are also reminders of how little control we have over the things in life that are the most precious to us — our health and the health of those we love, says Phyllis Kosminsky, Ph.D., a clinical social worker who specializes in helping people deal with difficult issues like life-threatening illness and grief.

Kosminsky, who counsels patients at the Center for Hope in Darien, Conn., agrees with Pogrebin that often a simple, heartfelt "I'm so sorry" is the best way to express your sympathy without demeaning what the other person is going through.

The social worker also acknowledges that, especially as we age, "it can sometimes feel like life is a never-ending series of losses and we just can't face one more."

If you feel as if you've reached your emotional limit, don't feel bad about taking some time to recharge, she says. Offer to do what you can "in ways that feel manageable to you," such as picking up groceries, taking the dog for a walk or stopping by just once a week to say hello.

And if visiting a hospital or hospice makes you uncomfortable, find other ways to express your concern. For my coworker, an offer to take her children to the movies or to dinner so she could stay with her mother would have been much more meaningful than an awkward sickroom visit.

We asked Pogrebin to tell us five things to say — and five things never to say — to someone who's ailing.

What to say:

1. I'm so glad to see you.

2. I'm so sorry you have to go through this.

3. Tell me what's helpful and what's not.

4. Tell me when you want to be alone, and when you want company.

5. Tell me what to bring and when to leave.

What not to say:

1. Is it terminal?

2. It could be worse.

3. Maybe it's in your head.

4. What do you think you did to cause it?

5. (To a mourner) God must have wanted him/her.

Candy Sagon is a senior associate editor for health for AARP.

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