Do you struggle with what to say to someone when you know they have a terminal disease, a disability, a mental illness or even when they are facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge?

As someone living with Motor Neurone Disease, I find myself on both sides of the conversation, receiving comfort and offering it, so maybe I can help.

I think a good rule of thumb is to stick to conversation, questions and condolences that match your level of relationship with the person.

Just because someone is going through something doesn’t automatically give us license to extend beyond the level of our current relationship with them.

As a casual friend or acquaintance, I ask people, how they are going “today”?  It means they don’t have to answer what can be an impossible question: “how are you going?”  Unless that person has been cured, they probably don’t want to relive everything that they are currently facing in what they are going through. The word “today” allows them to remain focused on the present.

For those I am closer with, I may ask, how they are “feeling”? This moves a conversation beyond the factual realities of the situation and towards how they are coping, emotionally, spiritually, or mentally with what they are going through. Their answer could be about how they are feeling about the future or the courage they need to face each day’s challenges.  It may be as detailed as treatment plans and the potential side effects of trial drugs.

So for your sake, for their sake, only ask if you really want to know. 

It’s shocking some of the things people come out with when they don’t know what to say. I’ve had people invite me to go into a closet with them to pray and not come out until I am healed. Some have asked me if I am really that sick as I look so good. Others have suggested that a forty-day fast with lemon and water will cure me.

All well meaning I’m sure, but there are better things we can say and they are often the simplest things: How are you going today? How are you feeling? How can I help? I’m praying for you, I’m sorry, you are inspiring, we love you, we are proud of you.

These words acknowledge the seriousness of what they are going through and yet still inspire hope for the future.

If you get a response like “I’m doing great” or “this is a great day”, it is not necessarily a contradiction to the challenge they have, it could just be a reflection of them trying to have the best day possible and not dwell on their less-than-perfect situation.

It is always good to consider that a person travelling through a tough time is most likely digging deep to find the strength to be positive. You never know, they could just be on the brink of taking a leap of faith. Their breakthrough could be just around the corner.

Your words could make all the difference.