The Most Helpful Thing To Say To Someone With Chronic Illness, According To 6 Women & Nonbinary Folks
Living with a chronic illness sometimes feels like a rollercoaster ride you can't get off: You're not always prepared for the twists, turns, and dips that often accompany disability, and there’s no guarantee how you’ll feel from one day to the next. However, having a supportive partner, family, or friends who know what's helpful to say to someone with a chronic illness can help make those difficult days a little more bearable.
In fact, research has shown having a good emotional and social support system is a "protective" factor for health. As Amy Walters, Ph.D., a psychologist and the director of mental health services at St. Luke’s Humphreys Diabetes Center, told SELF in 2018, "Social support plays a critical role in coping with the condition. [...] People who have strong social support networks tend to do better long-term."
Though family and friends usually mean well, statements like “You’ll beat this illness one day?” or “Have you tried yoga?” can feel dismissive, hurtful, and invalidating. Rather than dolling out unsolicited advice about someone's disability, the most supportive and reassuring statements tend to be the most straightforward: Having a loved one simply acknowledge your pain, emotions, and worth as a person can be comforting when you live with a chronic health issue — especially because of the stigma and ableism that surrounds disability.
Not sure how to best support your loved one? Here’s what six women and nonbinary folks living with chronic illnesses say are the most validating things their partners, or family members have ever said to them.
1. Carly, 23
Carly, who was recently diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, says her friends and family members have been supportive of her as she's learned how to manage her chronic illness. "I live 1,000 miles away from my parents, but they’ve been so supportive. My mom consistently tells me that I should never feel like a burden for my illnesses, and that she loves me regardless of whatever happens," she explains. "My boyfriend has also been particularly supportive; he always tells me he’s my partner in fighting this, and that I should never apologize for when I’m in pain, or if can’t stand up due to my heart condition, or can’t eat due to my GI issues."
2. Ariel, 27
"My mother has always been one of my biggest comforts during my years of living with chronic illnesses. [...] Something encouraging she’s always said to me is, 'On days you feel well, live your life,'" Ariel tells Bustle. "Now I know with chronic illness, there is never feeling 100% well, but her general takeaway is to not waste a good day when it comes by. It’s always been helpful, because it truly makes me seize the moment, and make every moment count."
3. Tatiana, 24
"Living with ulcerative colitis — or any chronic illness really — is one of the hardest things anyone can go through. Even when you’re in remission, there’s always a chance of a flare lurking around the corner, and sometimes that can weigh pretty heavily on you. In times like those, my anxiety has been high, and my boyfriend has always had my back," says Tatiana. "The most helpful thing he has said to me is that no matter what happens in the future, he will be by my side and love me just the same. He also reminds me all the time that I am one of the strongest people he knows."
4. Debra, 43
Debra says her spouse's validation has been helpful and reassuring when her chronic illness feels overwhelming. "He reminds me that, even with my chronic illness, I am still me," she explains. "He makes plans of fun things that we can do together, and when he tells me about them, it makes me feel loved and supportive."
5. Az, 24
Az says the most validating thing a loved one said to them as a chronically ill person came during the middle of a particularly bad flare-up. "My boyfriend was doing absolutely everything he could to take care of me. I couldn't help but feel crushing guilt because I wasn't contributing to anything, and ended up sobbing," they explain. "He sat me down and comforted me, and when I had calmed down, he looked at me and said, 'My love for you is totally, and wholly unconditional.' It was the most reassuring and perfect thing he could have said."
6. Valerie, 30
Valerie explains that her husband is one of the only people in her life who is able to comfort her about her chronic illnesses with words. "Mostly he validates me, but not in a traditional 'it'll be okay' type of thing. He will remind me that our relationship isn't 50/50, and that it's okay if I can only give 10% one day. He doesn't let me apologize, and he doesn't contradict or diminish my descriptions of my pain, or feelings," she says.
Sometimes, all it really comes down to is validating and acknowledging what a loved one with a chronic illness is going through — instead of talking over them. Living with a chronic illness isn't easy, but having a supportive partner or family you know you can rely on makes a world of difference.