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What to say (and not to say) to people with chronic pain

feel your feelings

In Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, historian and Duke Divinity professor Kate Bowler describes what it was like to be diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35. She writes clearly and honestly about living in the liminal space between wellness and illness, love and suffering, life and death. Her whole book is excellent, but as a fervent member of the Kate Bowler fan club, I can name off the top of my head the part of her book that resonated with me most: right at the end, when she gives a list of things to say (and things not to say) to people who are suffering. 

People with chronic pain know all too well what it’s like to be in conversation with well-intentioned people who don’t know what to say. We know what words feel good, and what words make us want to punch a hole in a wall somewhere. So, wonderful, well-intentioned people who don’t know what to say to a friend or acquaintance who has chronic pain: here is a helpful cheat sheet!

A disclaimer: you should go to the library, check out the book, and read it all the way to the end. That way, you can see how much I (lightly, reverently) borrow from some of the following recommendations!

“How are you doing?”

I know, I know. What could we possibly say to our acquaintances in line in Vondy if we don’t ask them how they are? I can’t count the number of times I have said, “Great! Fine! Doing amazing!” and been in intense pain when I said it. Even when I can tell that someone is asking how I’m doing the way people do when they know you might not be okay—you know, “how are you doing?”—I don’t usually want to explore my trauma with them in line with my backpack on five minutes before my class. I just want some pumpkin bread. 

Try instead: “How are you doing today?”

You mean I can be as specific or as vague as I want to be? I can talk about my pain level or I can talk about the weather or breakfast or my e-print malfunctioning earlier? Or I can still respond with a vague “good, how are you doing today?” Yes please.

“Have you tried this chiropractor/pain medicine/meditation/aromatherapy/acupuncture/positive self-talk/massage therapist/exercise routine/etc?”

Maybe! Not to be rude, but it’s none of your business! If you are talking to someone who has told you that they have chronic pain, it is safe to assume they are treating it as best they can, given their limitations of time, money, physical and emotional energy. Giving advice unprompted is invalidating because it tells the person in pain that you know more about their pain than they do. When you find me at the snack table of a party and start extolling the virtues of a meditation app that you promise will cure my pain, it makes me not want to talk about my pain with you. Or talk about anything with you. Please move over and let me get at those cheese and crackers.

Try instead: “Read this if you feel like it.”

There is a right way to share information with someone in pain. If you are good friends with someone (read: not cornering them at a party), and you are aware of a treatment that you truly believe could help them, send them an article about it. I always appreciate it when someone shares information with me in a way that’s free of expectations or judgements, because whether I do pursue that treatment or not, I know that my friend has an understanding of what I’m going through.

“God has a plan.”

Oh, boy. Listen. God and I are cool, for the most part. I like God. I am into talking about God. And even I don’t want to hear about how God has a plan! You know why? I have never heard this phrase from someone who lives with chronic illness or pain. In this hypothetical plan, I walk around the world in pain and you walk around the world telling people about God’s plan. That doesn’t sound like a good plan to me.

Try instead: “That sucks.”

It does! It sucks so bad sometimes! The beauty of this phrase is that it opens the door for us to talk more about it if I’m into it, but it also can be the end of the story. It sucks. Sometimes, that’s it. Let’s go get a McFlurry.

“You’re too young/pretty/happy/healthy-looking to be in pain!”

And yet, here I am! Young, healthy-looking people being in pain disrupts our conventional understanding of who gets to be healthy and who gets to be unhealthy. But not only does this statement minimize the pain of people who fit the stereotypes we have about people with chronic illnesses, it also explicitly denies the pain of the person you’re talking to. It is uncomfortable for a young (or old) person who believes the lie that their bodies are invincible to hear that anybody can hurt. But don’t pin that discomfort on people in pain.

Try instead: *Silence*

This is straight out of Kate Bowler’s list. If you’re feeling uncomfortable when someone tells you about their pain, it is better not to contribute to the conversation just yet. Do feel free to continue sipping your smoothie while I talk about my new heating pad. We’ll both be better for it.

“I’m sure it’ll get better soon!”

Eek, I’m not as sure as you are! And now I feel like, if I tell you that, you might be more upset about it than I am! I certainly hope it will get better, but you are not sure it will, and neither am I. Anyone could get mowed down by an electric scooter tomorrow; there are no guarantees of a future without pain for any of us. Don’t pretend that there are when you’re talking to someone who is suffering. It makes the person in pain feel isolated, like they can’t share a part of their life with you for fear it will upset you.

Try instead: “I’m about to go to the Loop; can I bring you something?”

In Kate Bowler’s words, “Oh, thank goodness. I am starving, but mostly I can never figure out something to tell people that I need, even if I need it.” Being there for someone in pain may look like silence, may look like understanding, and should always include affirmation and validation. But it also definitely looks like bringing them some dinner so they can keep rewatching Modern Love in bed. Please, come bring me pizza and hug me and maybe sit on my bed and talk about Anne Hathaway with me? I would love that.

Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior who hopes that this article as conveyed how important snacks are to the treatment of chronic pain. Please bring her some snacks! She needs more snacks! Her column, “feel your feelings,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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