Deborah Orr of The Guardian was diagnosed with cancer, and thus experienced first hand what people say to you when you're seriously ill.
What no one ever tells you about serious illness is that it places you at the centre of a maelstrom of concerned attention from family and friends. Of course it does. That's one of the nice things. It's actually the only nice thing. But it's also a rather tricky challenge, at a time when you may feel – just slightly – that you have enough on your plate. Suddenly, on top of everything else, you are required to manage the emotional requirements of all those who are dear to you, and also, weirdly, one or two people who you don't see from one year to the next, but who suddenly decide that they really have to be at your bedside, doling out homilies, 24 hours a day.
So, to help all of us out, she wrote a guide to The 10 Things Not To Say To Someone When They're Ill:
1 "I feel so sorry for you"
It's amazing, the number of people who imagine that it feels just great to be the object of pity. Don't even say "I feel so sorry for you" with your eyes. One of my friends was just brilliant at mimicking the doleful-puppy-poor-you gaze, and when I had been subjected to a sustained bout of it, I used to crawl over to the local pub for lunch with him, just so that he could make me laugh by doing it. Don't say "I feel so sorry for you" with your hand either. When someone patted my thigh, or silently rested their paw on it, often employing the exasperating form of cranial communication known as "sidehead" at the same time, I actually wanted to deck them. Do say: "I so wish you didn't have to go through this ghastly time." That acknowledges that you are still a sentient being, an active participant in your own drama, not just, all of a sudden, A Helpless Victim.
6 "Whatever I can do to help"
Apart from anything else, it's boring. Everybody says it, even though your assumption tends to be that people do want to help, of course. That doesn't mean that help should not be offered. But "Can I pick the children up from school on Tuesdays?" or "Can I come round with a fish pie and a Mad Men box set?" is greatly preferable to: "Can I saddle you with the further responsibility of thinking up a task for me?" If you do happen to be on the receiving end of "whatever I can do to help", be shameless. Delegate with steely and ruthless intent.