You know that feeling when you sit down to write a card to a loved one who’s hurting, you’ve picked the *perfect* card, your pen poised over the smooth paper and, allofasudden, you just have *no idea* what to say?
This guide is for you. I’m Grace Quantock and I run Healing Boxes CIC, a bespoke ethical gift box non-profit, designing gifts of support for people with illness, pain and in life crisis. I am also the founder of Trailblazing Wellness Un(Ltd) where I write and teach how to live well with chronic and serious illness. Oh, and I’ve lived with chronic illness myself for 13 years.
When I was bed bound and house bound for long periods, cards and letters became my medium of communication with the outside world, and I can’t overstate their importance. I’ve worked with thousands of people to design healing programs and wellness gifts that are *just* right and I’m excited to share my experience today of what to say when writing a card to someone with illness/grief.
It’s useful to differentiate between acute, serious and chronic illnesses. Sending a ‘get well soon’ card to someone diagnosed with a life limiting illness may not be as well received as one which simply acknowledges where they are now.
When I volunteered supporting children in hospice through sending cards/gifts, many people didn’t know what to say and just went with a generic “get well soon” card. But it was hard for the child if they knew they may not get better, or didn’t understand why they were still ill.
We don’t want to instigate blame (it can be rife in the medicalisation of our bodies), or suggest even obliquely, that someone is being slow in recovery.
Just never ask “are you better yet?” or “are you ok now?” because it’s horrible to be the one giving you bad news and have to answer “no”. Rest assured, if they are recovered or in remission, everyone will know!
For someone with a short term illness, “get well soon” can be perfect!
For someone with a serious, chronic or life limiting illness, sending your support at that time might be better.
Don’t expect a reply. They may want to reply, but they may have mislaid your card, or be too tired to get to the post office. They might have forgotten to reply, or thought they already have if cognitive dysfunction or memory problems are symptoms of the condition. I know I’ve done that before!
What To Write When…A friend/loved one has cancer:
Let’s address it, too often cancer is not mentioned, for years it was “after a long illness”, no more.
Don’t assume, don’t assume, don’t assume (the golden rule), and take your cues from the person you are writing to.
Wellness Warrior Kris Carr takes the power away from the cancer by misspelling it on purpose, cancer becomes “canser”, if the person you are writing to is doing this too, why not join them?
Don’t mention people you know who died from cancer, or who had the same cancer, unless they are now happy, well and in remission with no evidence of disease years later.
Rather than starting with a question on health, such as, “how are you?”, it can be a relief to be asked “how are things with you?” or similar. Let them tell you about their hobby, the red cardinal they saw, the TV show you both follow. It’s important to acknowledge the illness, but not bring everything around to it. It’s there, but they are still the person you know, the disabilities can be the footnotes, they are the adventure story.
Try offering emotional and practical support. Think about what you can offer, like collecting prescriptions, driving them to the hospital, sending them a card every week/month (or even every day if they are in treatment like chemo), walking their dog, dropping off their shopping once a week or similar. And then offer that as well as your support. Saying “let me know if there’s anything I can do” is lovely, but it leaves the ball in their court. Then they have to think of what they might need done – which is hard when you are used to being able to do everything yourself. Then they have to try and work out what you might be able to do and actually bring up the courage to ask you. Exhausting.
If you make some offers, even if they aren’t exactly what’s needed, it allows the person to gauge what level of support you can provide.
For a friend/loved one who has a chronic illness:
One of the kindest things you can say here is “no reply expected or required”. This is a gift as it takes the pressure off the recipient who, while loving getting a card, may already be feeling the obligation of replying – even just to thank you or to carry on the conversation – but they may be feeling too sick to do so.
Keep writing. Too often in chronic illness after the initial “shock” of the diagnosis or accident when there’s a rush of support, friends and loved ones drift away. They’ve become used to the person being ill, they have started to move on with their lives without the person being as active with them as they were before. It’s all understandable – it’s exhausting to maintain a perpetual state of crisis, and it’s unhealthy. But while you are busy with your life, they may still be hurting, suffering, struggling and now lonely too.
Book a date in your diary to write to them monthly or weekly. Ask if they’d like chatty letters that don’t need a reply. Send interesting things with your cards – a leaflet from a park you visited, a post card of a painting you think they’d love from the gallery you attended, the orange/crimson leaf your child picked up in the park, a photograph from the school play.
Carry your card/letter with you and write to them while you are at the bus stop, the dentist’s waiting room, while you are waiting for brunch to be served at the café. You’ll be taking them to those places too in a very meaningful way, and you’ll be able to include details of what you see, where you are – a friend in your pocket isn’t just a social media app, it can be a letter too!
People used to include each other by post for many years. Letters are tangible, tactile ways to connect someone to the world – lets keep doing that.
A lovely, thoughtful gift would be to subscribe them to Pretty By Post or send them a package of Pretty By Post’s cards because staying in touch with support networks is so important when someone has a chronic illness.
Often the thought of trying to dig out an appropriate card, or drag oneself to the shops to try and buy one, is overwhelming. It’s the same school of thought which says, if you take flowers to someone who’s ill, take them *with* the vase. Unless they are already in a vase, they can become a pain rather than a pleasure.
So send cards from you, and some cards to connect with others too (can you throw a pack of stamps in yours? I think that would be sweet).
Connecting by cards is great for people with fatigue because you can write a little, pause and take a rest, come back to it on a better day etc. It’s hard to pause and take a nap in the middle of a phone call. Visiting someone in person is great, but it can cost them lots of “spoons“, and the internet, with backlit, handheld, colourful, flashing, beeping devices can be very draining and a hidden energy vampire. Offer another, more fatigue-friendly way to connect, like letters!
For a friend/loved one who has been in the hospital for tests:
Remembering means everything here. Having tests in hospital can be scary, painful, confusing… and sometimes boring! People don’t generally go to hospital because they are well and happy, so they are probably going to be hurting or scared.
If you know when they are due for the tests, send a card beforehand, send them vibes on the day and send cards after while they are waiting for the results. You don’t want to overload them, just be there through the process.
You can ask if they’d like to keep getting cards with no need to reply. And ask what they want to hear about – do they want you to share details of potential new treatments you’ve read about? Do they still want to hear about your ski holiday if they can’t go any more? Would they like news of your children if they’ve just lost a baby? The answer is individual. It might be too painful or they might need to hear it more than ever.
Sending poems and quotes that are strengthening or heartening may be welcome.
For a friend/loved one who has been sick but doesn’t have a diagnosis…
Believe them. Remind them who they are, how you see them, reassure them that you still care about them and are going to support them through the journey of diagnosis and treatment. At the end of the day, a diagnosis is a label, something we put on a collection of expressions (or symptoms) the body is having. For some people a diagnosis is a relief, finally they have an explanation for why they feel as they do. It can be a day of celebration because now treatment can start, or they can begin accepting the way things are now that they understand what’s happening.
For other people diagnosis can be dreaded, the label can feel like a punishment or a sentence.
Still other people see diagnosis as the holy grail and it’s hard not to have one. But ‘no diagnosis’ doesn’t mean ‘no illness’ or ‘no struggle’ and people without a diagnosis need support just as much as someone with one.
“When we ask ourselves which [people] in our lives mean the most to us, we often find… it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” – Henri J.M. Nouwen
For a friend/loved one who is grieving:
Vulnerability matters here. We want your words to be empathic and congruent but not make the recipient your grief counsellor.
It’s not their job to console you, and you can express your regret without overwhelming them. If this feels difficult, can you write a journal entry first? Write out everything you are feeling and then pick the parts you’d like to share with them. Deal with the feelings and fears the situation brings up in you. Grief and illness are parts of life we will all experience.
It’s important not to impose your beliefs on someone else, so don’t say things like “they are in heaven” etc., unless you know the person shares that belief.
It can be most comforting to acknowledge how they are feeling without trying to fix it. It’s better to accept what they are feeling than try and chivy them out of it or convince them to not be sad. So please don’t write things like “at least you have your children/family/another child” or “you are young, you’ll find someone else/marry again”. They wanted and loved this person.
You may be reading this thinking, I wouldn’t write that! But people do, often because they are grieving themselves or the magnitude of the loss scares them so they try and minimise it.
Do make sure to mention the person who died. Many people who have lost a loved one fear they will be forgotten.
Stay in touch, even if you feel awkward, even if you don’t know what to say. It’s better to be there and risk making a mistake, saying the ‘wrong’ thing and sticking through the friendship to repair it than just disappearing.
I hope this helps you to reach out to a loved one. I am wishing you good days, warm hearts and lovely letters.
We’ve made it really easy for you to be prepared with our Sympathy Curated Collection.
Grace is recognised as a trailblazer by thousands of people who have seen her speak and participated in her programs. She regularly guest tutors at universities and training programs and coaches clients internationally. Currently living – and thriving – with often debilitating illness, she knows, firsthand, the emotional and physical roller coaster that accompanies diagnosis and life struggle.
Awards include a Future Young Leader of Wales Award, multiple wins in the Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2015, (Social Enterprise and Eco categories). Grace is featured in The Times, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire magazine and Positive News and gave an internationally renowned TEDx talk.
Grace loves gardening, painting and she firmly believes that life is meant to be celebrated.