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How Do Real Friends Respond to a Serious Illness? (7 Comforting Things to Say)

By Randall Hartman September 25, 2023 Lifestyle

My friends are getting sick at an alarming rate. No doubt it goes with the aging process. We all get our share of aches and pains but some illnesses are a matter of life and death. When your friend is diagnosed with a serious illness, what’s the best way to respond?

It’s tricky. You want to be helpful and encouraging. But in times of serious illness the odds of saying or doing something that will be hurtful instead of helpful are pretty high. The emotions of your sick friend are running high. It’s easy for them to be extra sensitive to how people are responding to their situation. Caution is in order.

The value of true friendship cannot be exaggerated. We must do everything possible to maintain friendship with those closest to us. On my own website I’ve written several articles about the importance of friendship. For example, I encourage you to check out Friends: The Ultimate Source of Energy. 

Here are 7 ways real friends can respond during times of serious illness.

Real Friends Don’t Say, “I Know How You Feel”

This might be the mistake we make most often. It’s a natural thing to say when we want to bring encouragement. But it is not the right thing to say. Someone who faces a dangerous illness knows you have no real idea how they are feeling. It’s more helpful to admit you DON’T know how they feel.

Real Friends Give Their Sick Friends Some Space

It’s so tempting to make the mistake of crowding a friend who is struggling with health issues. You really care and that means you want to know details. With the best of motives, you become an armchair medic who critiques what their doctor tells them. But in times of serious illness your friend needs some space. Give them time to process what is happening to them.

Real Friends Don’t Say, “You Look Good”

I’ve stood beside someone in a hospital bed when a friend walked up and announced, “You look good.” No. They looked like crap. And they knew it. To tell them they look good when it’s obviously not true creates alarm instead of calm. If it’s not true, don’t say it.

Real Friends Recognize the Importance of Being Available

Even though it’s important to back off, it’s also critical to let your friend know you are available for them. Make it clear you will walk with them as close as they want. Remind them they have your phone number. Offer to call them on a certain schedule to check up on them. A real friend is always available.

Real Friends Don’t Give Their Sick Friend an Aunt’s Magic Cure

We all know of someone who had a certain illness and tried a whacky treatment seeking a cure. When your friend gets ill please don’t tell them about the weird treatments you’ve read about which will cure them. During the dark days of illness people become desperate. Your well-intended comment could send them on a plane to South America to search for the tail of an albino newt.

Real Friends Avoid Telling Their Sick Friend about Someone Else Who Had the Same Illness

I’m surprised at how often I’ve heard people say to their friend in the hospital, “My cousin had the same thing wrong with him.” The natural question is to ask how the person with the same illness is doing. Too often the answer is that they are no longer alive. Avoid offering up this possibility.

Real Friends Don’t Tell Their Friend They Will Be Praying for Them

The words “I’ll pray for you” don’t mean much. Too often it’s a quick response from a friend that really means they didn’t know what else to say. If you are religious, do this instead: pray for your friend right there when you are with them. Go ahead. One prayer in that moment will mean more than 1,000 promised prayers prayed at some other time and place.

It’s tough to have friends suffer with serious illnesses. But being a real friend means that you will walk the journey with them.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

How have you been a real friend to someone with a serious illness? Were there any conversations that you had with them which were particularly meaningful and helpful? What advice would you give to a woman in our community who wants to talk with a friend with a serious illness?

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Jan J

this is a good article. I think the worst thing you can do is to minimize their fear or suffering. To tell someone with Stage 4 cancer that they should have a cup of herbal tea and meditate and the cancer will vanish is just cruel. Yes, people do that. Also, if your friend has consulted multiple doctors and is making smart decisions, sending them sketchy YouTube videos (much of the “information” on social media is garbage) doesn’t help at all. I think seeing a loved one who is very ill is hard, it reminds us of our own mortality. But please don’t trivialize their concerns by engaging in toxic positivity. Maybe ask the person what they’d like you to do, what would help them – don’t force your own ideas on them.


What’s important is to focus on how they’re feeling at the moment and to also not avoid acknowledging their illness. A possible way to respond would be: I’m sorry this is happening to you (or your own version of this), but what can I do to make this somewhat better for you right now? Then, just sit and listen. Or, act by doing whatever they need or bringing a drink or food (but only if they want this). Too often families try to push this on people who have lost their appetite or ability to swallow well. Your presence there, sitting in silence is often enough. Unless they specifically ask, don’t go on and on about what’s going on in your life or that of others. Their mind is on far bigger issues at the moment. This is just an irritating distraction that they’re forced to pay attention to when they’re already fighting fatigue. It’s not the nice distraction for them as some might hope, unless requested by them.


I survived breast cancer 11 years ago, and I experienced all of these, so I know you’re correct. I was told I’d lose weight now, like it was a good thing.
The best thing I heard was “I’m so sorry,” with a hug. One friend cried with me. Some called just to ask how I felt. There really are simple ways to let someone know you care.


I didn’t see anything about the 7 comforting things we should say, as the title stated. Also, telling a friend you will pray for them – and then following through – is a kind and loving gesture. If you want to pray with someone on the spot, always ask them first if it is okay to do so.


I 100% agree that telling someone you are praying for them is never wrong – unless you are just saying the words without action. What a wonderful thing to be told you are being prayed for.

I have been in a situation where I cared for a person that eventually passed. We had many conversations discussing life and the things that were truly important to them. I was her biggest advocate through it all. She wasn’t the type to ask questions. Just felt it was being to bold for her. I became her voice and asked direct questions to her doctors. It was just so important for her to know I was there and loved her. I have also been the caregiver to my dear cousin as she went thru everything related to her breast cancer.

DO NOT throw out the blanket “call me if you need anything”. Because they won’t call. Check in with them regularly and throw out some ideas of things you know of their life that you may be able to help them with! And, don’t rely on them to speaking to just them. Talk to the caregiver!!! It’s exhausting for them and they will have many ideas on what you can help with! You can pick up prescriptions, do laundry, get groceries, help them sort through pictures, take care of a million details they need and help the caregiver not run all over while they need their energy to focus on care. (This point I cannot emphasize enough!)


Your response is the truest and most appropriate suggestions of this entire article. Being a caregiver for my daughter who passed last year, everything you offered as advice, is exactly what the sick person and the caregiver need. We experienced every reaction and action you mentioned in the 11 years I cared for her. Most people just don’t know what to say in a terminal situation. They mean well, but are unprepared.

Lisa N.

It would have been helpful to include a few things a friend CAN say.


Just say what you would like to hear if the tables were turned.

The Author

Dr. Randall Hartman, D.Min., M.Div., is a Baby Boomer who writes at about the ReFIRE reinvention process. After successfully serving for 30 years as a minister he uses his writing, speaking, and coaching skills to help people transition into their most vibrant and meaningful years. Sign up for Randall's newsletter to learn how to make the rest of your life the best.

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