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When things are best left unsaid

Every second adult in urban India lives with a chronic illness or health issue. In most cases, the problems are undiagnosed. Another widely prevalent and often undiagnosed condition is the urge to give unsought advice to everyone and anyone, specially on issues to do with their health or lack of it.

columns Updated: Dec 27, 2014 18:11 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Though-health-advice-by-kins-is-always-well-meant-it-s-seldom-welcomed-Photo-Shutterstock
Though-health-advice-by-kins-is-always-well-meant-it-s-seldom-welcomed-Photo-Shutterstock

Every second adult in urban India lives with a chronic illness or health issue, ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes, heart disease, spondylosis and obesity, to name just a few. In most cases, the problems are undiagnosed. Another widely prevalent and often undiagnosed condition is the urge to give unsought advice to everyone and anyone, specially on issues to do with their health or lack of it.

Everyone has an opinion on how to manage asthma, how to cure dengue, how to lower blood pressure, how to prevent hairfall and all other troubles real and imagined. These insights are almost never based on scientific research or validated traditional remedies. The advice is usually based on personal experience -- "the juice papaya leaves cured my son's dengue" or "carrot juice saved my failing vision" -- or something heard somewhere from someone with a forgettable name. Though such advice is always well meant, it's seldom welcomed. What's always welcomed is being listened to-and knowing that we're being heard. Instead, we're inundated with advice. So, it may be a good idea to think before you tell people how to best cope with a condition that's bothering them.

Among the things you must never say to the troubled or the ailing are: "I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"

I lost my mum to cancer last year and I know for a fact that she hated people feeling sorry for her. She chose not to tell her friends and family about her cancer simply because she did not want people calling her every day or sitting by her bedside advising her to rest and take it easy. "I want things to be as normal as possible for as long as possible. I know I have cancer but I don't want to be reminded of it every day," she said, and pottered around her plants till she couldn't anymore. Sympathy does not work for everyone and is often the last thing people need in their fight against a chronic or terminal illness. Most of the time, you don't have to say anything. Just being there is enough. "You're so brave. I'm happy to see you coping so well."

Living with illnesses is not about being brave, it's about coping with an unexpected situation the best you can. For all you know, the person may be struggling to cope and your well-meaning platitude may just make them not reach out to you to discuss their concerns and fears. Also, all chronic conditions and diseases don't mean imminent death, so words that sound like condolences are best not said. So, unless you really know exactly how the person feels or is going through, don't assume you know. And don't say what you think you know out loud. "You look well for someone in your condition/going through what you are." Saying someone's looking better when they're not is a bad idea. It makes people wonder why there's a need for you to lie to them.

A friend who needs to lose weight says he gets mad when people tell him he's looking fitter. "Do they they think I'm stupid or can't see myself in the mirror? I know I'm unfit. Their saying I've lost weight makes me feel worse about not losing it."

It helps to ask yourself whether what you're about to say is helpful to the person you're saying it to. Wait for them to ask for advice before making personal comments. "It could be worse." Knowing that something could be a lot worse is hardly a cheery thought. Avoid measuring a person's suffering, pain, or discomfort or judging them. People hinting that you've got off lightly with a heart attack and not lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking is far more common that you'd believe. Blame is the last thing an ailing person needs and judgmental comments can alienate you forever.

A sympathetic ear is all that most of us need. When in doubt on what to say, stick to, "Do you need anything?" Or simply, "How can I help?"