The Right Things to Say to Someone with RA
We’ve all been in those situations where someone shares with us that they have cancer, are in need of surgery, or have another serious health condition, and we’re left wondering what the right thing to say is. In those moments, I want to show my care and concern without making too big or too little a deal out of it. For those of us with rheumatoid arthritis, we’ve also been on the other side of that conversation. When we share that we have a chronic autoimmune condition, there is a wide array of responses we may hear. Some of these are validating and comforting, but some of them can seem insensitive or condescending. Knowing how hard it can be to find the right thing to say to people in our situation, I thought it might be helpful to list some of the most welcome statements I’ve heard.
I wish you didn’t have to go through this. This is a statement that works in all circumstances, whether it’s coming from a co-worker who has just discovered I have rheumatoid arthritis or from my spouse who’s been living with me and with my RA for years. It is a compassionate statement that validates the difficulty of living with the disease without suggesting a sense of pity.
How can I help? Everyone can use a helping hand, but for someone with RA, a little assistance can mean the difference between completing a task on time and not getting it finished at all. A little help can also mean a person with RA feels okay the next day, rather than physically paying the price for over-exertion. I love it when people say, “How can I help?” instead of, “Do you need any help?” I’m an independent person, and it can be very hard to admit that I would benefit from some assistance. When friends or relatives are determined to help and ask only for direction in where to put their efforts, it greatly lessens the feeling of being a burden.
Do you want to take a rest? This one can often be paired with “How can I help?” When my husband or a relative says this to me, it is like music to my ears. I hate that RA sometimes keeps me from doing all the things I want to do. This is especially the case when others have to pick up my slack, so there are times when I will push through pain and fatigue to try to accomplish a task, even when my body really needs to rest. There is a huge difference between having to ask my husband if he can take over making dinner or watching the kids so that I can rest, and hearing him make this offer himself. It can be hard to admit to myself that sometimes I really need to rest, and it can be even harder to ask others for this opportunity. Being offered the chance to rest is one of the ways I feel most supported by my loved ones.
I’m sorry to hear you can’t make it. I would have loved to see you, but I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself. As much as we hate to do it, those of us with RA often find ourselves breaking plans. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition, but its symptoms can be intermittent and are often unpredictable. Therefore, when someone with RA buys concert tickets months in advance or RSVP’s “yes” to an event, the plan feels definite at the moment. Yet, the symptoms of RA can strike unexpectedly, and the pain can make even the most eagerly anticipated events impossible. On top of the disappointment of not being able to participate, when I have to cancel plans I feel like I am letting other people down. A statement from a friend or relative that acknowledges my physical need to break plans can be extremely comforting in these bummer moments.
You are courageous. I never would have thought of this on my own, but after my amazing husband said to me one painful morning that he admired my courage, I have given this statement a lot of thought. I have come to regard it as one of the most powerful things that can be said to someone with a chronic condition. Often in the midst of a flare I feel vulnerable and weak. Being told that not only is it inaccurate to think of myself that way, but that I am actually brave is a powerful perspective-flipper.
Any person with rheumatoid arthritis would wish it away if they could. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable in the face of witnessing another person’s hardship, but silence doesn’t lessen that discomfort. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but when I’m having a hard time, hearing a kind, compassionate statement is absolutely priceless.
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