Discussing the Health Concerns of
a Friend or Family Member

Friends Having Serious Conversation

“How are you doing?” is one of the most popular conversation starters.  And yet, discussing your health, and particularly a serious health concern, is not a topic for casual conversation.  This is why the typical response when asked the aforementioned question is: “I’m doing great!” or “I’m okay” or “Just fine, thank you.”

Discussions regarding health concerns are carried on with family members and friends.  They are the people who care the most and will be there to help with any situations that arise.

But if you are a family member or friend with a loved one suffering from disease, injury, or other mental or physical challenge, how should you receive and respond to the information shared with you?

When You Hear the News

When a person communicates a health diagnosis, it’s not always easy to know what to say or do.  It may not only be unexpected, but startling, news.

Your relationship with the person sharing his or her news will determine how the conversation moves forward. 

If you are a coworker or acquaintance, you may not have as much to contribute as someone who has a closer relationship would.  But a sincere response is appropriate:

  • Express your concern.  “Sally, so sorry (or glad depending on the information shared) your report was….”
  • Assure the person that you care about her.  “You’re so important to so many people, and we’re behind you.”
  • Exit the topic in a way that prevents becoming intrusive.  “Keep us posted as you learn more.  Good thoughts!”

If you are a friend or family member who may not be directly involved in the person’s care, you might respond via the following manner:

  • Express your concern and care for her.
  • Ask if she needs to talk something through, letting her know that your role is to listen.
  • Encourage her to continue taking care of herself and ask if you’re needed to help in any way.  It’s possible she may need you to assist in finding a doctor or health professional. 

No matter what your relationship is to the patient, avoid giving unsolicited advice.  Everyone has their own way of dealing with health issues and this is usually determined by personal beliefs.  If the person feels her beliefs are being questioned, she may feel judged, and misjudge your concern. 

Even if your advice is requested, try to keep it general unless your friend or family member asks follow-up questions to get more specific.  If you feel strongly about intervening with your own advice, explain that you are only expressing your opinion and it is being shared with love and concern.

Generally Speaking

Sometimes, because people want to be polite and not bring up their health issues or worry others, you might notice that they appear downtrodden or unhappy.  Expressing a concern in response to what appears to be so, can be helpful.

  • “You haven’t seemed yourself lately, but I’m only perceiving that.  Is everything okay?”
  • “If you need to talk, I’m here for you.”

When you are visiting someone who is sick at home or receiving care in a hospital, your role is pretty simple and important: to listen as that person shares whatever he wants.  It’s not the time to impose advice, but to offer any assistance as needed.  You really aren’t there for conversation, your goal is to be helpful. 

Caring for a loved one in your own home brings its challenges as well.  Depending on the seriousness of the condition, you may feel overwhelmed and in need of care yourself.  Even though it might get tiring, aiming to be respectful and considerate calls you to calmness and evenness of response.  A helpful question may alleviate the tension:

  • “You are going through a lot.  Is there anything you need to talk through more?”
  • “What can I do to cheer you up?”
  • “Would you like me to call Scott to come and sit with you while I run a few errands?  I’m sure you’re probably tired of me hovering around you.”  Sometimes a little humor can lighten the load for the patient and the caregiver.

Once you've discussed someone's health concerns in a social setting, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the other person doesn’t want to continue the discussion into your next conversation.  The next time you see or visit with him, asking “How’s it going?” might be far better than, “The last time we talked, you were concerned about your health.  Is everything okay?” 

This leaves the door open for him to give you an update or discuss further concerns - or not.

The most important thing is simply to "be there."  Feeling supported and cared for goes a long way in helping with a patient’s recovery.  Don’t overextend yourself, and don’t make the situation about you, but also don’t underestimate how much your presence will mean to someone who may need you.

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