17 Jun 2024

Talking about Illness

It seemed that, during the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, discussions about health were everyday fodder. Long taught to keep our illness and physical complaints to ourselves, we found we were in a place where everyone was forensically interested in everyone else’s symptoms, not least because of an understandable caution around infection. Struck down by Covid, we all enjoyed comparing symptoms and moaning, we discussed vaccines, compared remedies, brandished testing kits and felt no compunction about making very direct enquiries about other people’s immunity. It was a health free for all.

Gradually, we are reverting to our normal British attitudes. We are reminded that everyone has days when they are full of cold and suffering from aches and pains and are urged to remember that these are personal inconveniences which, as far as possible, should be kept to ourselves. We are warned that detailed discussion of symptoms can all too possibly mutate into whingeing and, worst of all, over-explicit accounts of bodily functions. You should never be guilty of telling people things they really don’t want to know.

On the other hand, Covid has taught us important lessons about taking precautions; we now know that if we are suffering from something very contagious or an illness that impairs the ability to work, we should be as honest as discretion allows about taking the day off. Soldiering on may seem brave, but we all know it is simply stupid.

Our reluctance to discuss illness is understandable when we’re talking about everyday aches and pains. But bear in mind that if people are suffering from chronic or long-term pain (eg long Covid) or have received a life-changing diagnosis, it is extremely rude to completely disregard their circumstances.

Here is some guidance about how to react to serious illness or long-term conditions:

•Don’t go into denial

Many people, on being told this kind of news, fall back onto denial, saying things like “You’ve never looked better, you can’t be that sick!”. Nobody who is seriously ill wants to be forced to plead their case and convince friends and family of the seriousness of their condition. When you’re told a fact that you find unpalatable, accept that your incredulity is your own problem – don’t ever communicate it to the conveyor of the bad news.

•Don’t turn into a health ‘expert’

Some people, shocked by bad news, can only cope with it by attempting to control the narrative. They bombard the person who is sick with endless natural remedies, special food recommendations and suggestions for combatting the condition, illustrated by anecdotes about acquaintances who have triumphed over adversity through diets, vitamins and obscure health regimes. Their attempts to manage the situation soon become oppressive and can often drive the patient into a shell. Remember everyone has their own way of coping with illness and that is their prerogative.

•Don’t go silent

It is very common, confronted by bad news, to shrink into a shell. You don’t know how to react, so you take the path of least resistance, which is to say nothing, perhaps offering the excuse that you “don’t want to intrude”. This is a terrible let-down for the sick person who at the very least expects acknowledgement of the difficulties they are confronting. On the other hand, regular, compassionate enquiries about health, symptoms, treatments etc will be a source of great comfort and a reminder that people really do care. Sometimes it is all too easy to be ruled by your embarrassment into stigmatising an illness, making it something that cannot be discussed, further isolating the patient.

•Don’t go into overdrive

The other end of the spectrum is to bombard the patient with compassion and sympathy. It is quite possible to fetishise the suffering of the patient to the point where your sympathy feels oppressive and overwhelming, and your repeated offers of help become burdensome.

•Make regular enquiries

Once you have been told about a serious health condition, it is important that you make regular, general enquiries, along the lines of “How have you been feeling?” or “How is your health?”, “Is there anything I can help you with?”. You are not digging intrusively deep (a risk if you offer detailed interrogations about symptoms and treatment), but you are giving the patient space in which to confide in you, should they choose to do so. Ensure that these exchanges take place in private so that the patient is not exposed or embarrassed in front of other people if they do not want to talk; you must respect their sense of privacy.

•Listen carefully

If somebody wants to talk to you about a serious health condition, give them your full attention and do not shy away from difficult insights. Don’t interrupt or lecture them, give them space to talk and listen attentively. Above all, remember that there are times in all relationships when the attention inevitably flows one way; your own concerns and preoccupations will seem trivial to someone who is confronting a real health crisis, so don’t be offended if the give and take of conversation is somewhat lacking. Now is the time to offer selfless support.

•Resist texting

However you choose to react, try to do so in fully thought-out sentences and without the assistance of totally inappropriate emojis. Shielding behind texting is the coward’s way out; it is so much better if you can visit the patient and converse face to face or at the very least talk on the phone. If you want to write, send a handwritten letter or a properly thought-out email. Now is not the time for abbreviated messages, which imply that your compassion is limited.


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