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What to Say to Someone Who is Sick

Examples of encouraging words to write or say in-person

spinner image A female is comforted by a friend who offers kind words
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Anyone who has been seriously ill or has had a loved one dealing with a health crisis knows how friends and family can either say the most comforting things or the least welcome ones.  

Words don’t always come easy in sensitive situations. So, AARP spoke with several experts who offer some advice on the best things to say (and not to say) to a friend, family member or coworker who is sick or in recovery.  

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How to speak with a sick friend

Someone who is sick can feel isolated and may even be waiting for others to reach out to them. So, don’t be afraid to show you care just because you aren’t sure what to say, says Michelle Maidenberg, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at New York University (NYU).

“It’s important to acknowledge the challenges of whatever it is that they’re experiencing,” she says. “If somebody says, ‘It's really hard for me,’ just mirror their feelings back to them by saying things, like, ‘I hear that this is really hard.’”

Phrases to say to a sick person:

  • “I’m really sorry you’re going through this.”
  • “How can I be helpful to you?”
  • “How can I be supportive?”
  • “Do you want me to bring you some food? What is your favorite food?”
  • “What you just shared with me was so heartfelt and I really appreciate you opening up to me in this way.”

What to say to someone who just had surgery:

  • “Sending you healing vibes.”
  • “Please let me know if you need a ride or just want to talk.”
  • “What was the process like?”   

Finding the right words to say to sick friends, family members or colleagues

First, think about the relationship you have with the person and let that guide your approach.

“You could have a colleague who you’re very, very connected to and a family member or spouse that you’re not connected to,” Maidenberg says. “I would say the more intimate the relationship, the more that you could offer.”  

Regardless of who the person is in your life, it’s important to gain an understanding of their support system. If someone has a lot of support, you don’t need to feel pressured to offer as much help. But if you find they lack support, it could be a good time to lend a hand.

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For example, if you are reaching out to a coworker and your relationship is purely business, you want to be encouraging without prying, as they may not want coworkers to know the nature of their recovery, says Jenn Kennedy, a marriage and family therapist and a professor at Antioch University in Santa Barbara.

What to say to a sick coworker:

  • I’m sorry for this very unexpected zag.
  • Sending you love as you walk this journey.
  • Heal up and know that I’m thinking about you.

When to send a card, text, email, or call someone who is sick

Take the person’s lead to understand how public a person is with their condition. If they’re private, give space and understand their needs.


Cards can be a good option for almost any­one in your life, especially those who are dealing with a long-term illness. They are a passive way to let someone know that you care, and sending one gives you the chance to write a heart-felt message.

Phone calls

A phone call can be more invasive , so reserve that for someone you have a closer relationship with. “Don’t expect them to answer, but rather, be prepared to leave a kind, concise message that shows you care,” Kennedy says.  

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Text messages are good for quick updates or short-form messages — especially for close friends and family members — but they can also put pressure the person to respond and talk about their condition, even if they aren’t ready to do so.

If you’re going to send a text, make sure to say something like, “I’m just letting you know that I’m thinking of you. But I also want to let you know that you don’t need to respond to me if you’re not up to it.”  


Emails provide a little more time for someone to reply once they are ready. The format also gives you an opportunity to include a nice photo of the two of you together or an uplifting graphic.

Is it OK to use humor when speaking with a sick friend?

Take the temperature of the room and the person who is sick. Note whether they seem like they want to be distracted and digress from talking about their illness to talk about something else. If they want to reminisce and talk about comedic, happy or joyful memories, go for it. Otherwise, you don’t want to impose humor on someone who is not in that space.

Things to avoid saying to someone who is sick

If you say something that doesn’t land right, have grace with yourself and try again, Kennedy says. She recommends avoiding sentences that start with “at least” because it may feel like you are trying to find the good in the situation, which can feel agitating.

You also want to avoid making comparisons even if you’ve experienced a similar illness or circumstance. “It doesn't mean that the experience is the same,” Maidenberg says. “It shuts down communication. And if a person is having some kind of varied experience, they're not going to want to share.”

Phrases to avoid saying to someone who is sick:

  • “Everything will be OK.”
  • “Time heals all wounds.”
  • “Perhaps you could learn something from this.”
  • “It’s better that this happened instead of…”
  • “Call me if you need anything.” (It places the burden on them and requires them to ask for something.)

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