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5 Things to Consider Before Asking Someone About Their Chronic Illness

As a friend, family member, or co-worker of someone with a chronic illness, you (hopefully) want to learn more about their illness and how to support them — but you may be unsure of how to broach the topic. Maybe you’re afraid of being nosy or insensitive, or maybe you don’t know when to bring it up. There’s really only one place to start: by asking questions. It’s the best way to learn and get a sense of how comfortable that person is sharing about chronic illness. As an added bonus, the mere act of asking questions shows that you care about that person.

Now, before deciding if you should ask questions and what to ask, there are a few important things to consider.

1. Consider your relationship with this person

Obviously, questions you would ask an acquaintance are different than questions you would ask a close family member — don’t pry any further about this person’s chronic illness than you would about any other personal topic. It’s a good idea to start by asking surface-level questions and gradually move deeper, depending on how close your relationship is. If you don’t know this person very well, don’t expect them to share anything about their chronic illness with you — chronically ill people are not obligated to educate you.

2. Consider what this person has already revealed to you about their chronic illness

Make your decision to ask questions based on what you already know about this person’s chronic illness. If they have never mentioned it to you or never shared it publicly, they may not be comfortable talking about it. If they have already brought up their chronic illness on their own, that’s your cue to ask questions and learn. Chances are — if it’s something they are comfortable sharing, they will have mentioned it already.

3. Consider the situation and time in which you are asking questions

It’s important to ask questions in an appropriate situation and pay attention to timing. For example, don’t ask your friend about their chronic illness in front of other people — just because they’re comfortable sharing with you, doesn’t mean they want to share with a group. In terms of timing, don’t ask your co-worker about their chronic illness only after they miss a meeting for a doctor’s appointment — it may be the only time their illness pops into your mind, but this makes it seem like their illness is only important when it affects their productivity. Also, consider asking about this person’s chronic illness in everyday situations, rather than making it “formal.” This helps to normalize their illness and reduce stigma.

4. Consider your motivation for asking questions

If you’re asking questions for any reason other than wanting to genuinely understand and support this person, don’t bother. If your motivation is curiosity, a person’s chronic illness is none of your business. Truly think about why you want to ask about their chronic illness and what you are going to do with the information you receive.

5. Consider whether a Google search will suffice

I can promise you that the chronically ill person in your life is real tired of explaining what their illness is, so spend five minutes gathering basic information. This takes pressure off of the chronically ill person and shows them that you’re willing to educate yourself. Googling is so simple, but it means so much when someone takes the time to learn.

Asking questions is important

Asking questions to the chronically ill person in your life is important for many reasons. It shows that you care about them and that you’re thinking about their illness, rather than ignoring and dismissing it. It also reduces the risk of making assumptions — assumptions can be very harmful; asking questions is a great way to recognize any assumptions you have made and get information directly from the source. Finally, by asking questions, you open the door for the person in your life to talk further about their illness if they desire to. This allows them to open up to you without feeling like a burden.

If you consider all of these factors before asking questions, you’re on your way to learning about this person’s chronic illness in a respectful way. The next step is to think about questions you will ask and questions you will avoid.

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