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What Not To Say To Someone At Risk During A Global Pandemic

by Dallas Athent

I love my friends. Really, I do. The majority of them are wonderful people that amaze me every day. They are artists and teachers and powerful businesswomen. But many of them are young and healthy and they don’t know what they don’t know, including what it’s like to be a chronically ill person, especially during a global pandemic where your disease is constantly listed as being in a “high risk group.” As a Type-1 Diabetic, that is one thing I am aware of.

Please don’t get me wrong – I know nobody’s perfect, and I don’t expect everyone to have a completely nuanced approach one hundred percent of the time. This article isn’t about that! It’s for people who have someone they love who’s in a high risk group, and may want to learn ways to make them feel more comfortable when we’re feeling most vulnerable. And so, if you’re still with me, here we go…

Things NOT to say: 

I’m just so afraid I’m going to get it and end up hospitalized.  

Yes, I know it sounds like I’m telling people not to express their very rational fears. Hear me out, though! COVID-19 is new. We’ve never been through a global pandemic of this scale. Any of us. Whatever fears you have about your physical body are completely justified. But your friend is likely very afraid as well, even more afraid. And the statistics show that COVID-19 is, in many cases, likely going to lead to us being hospitalized. 

Before you share your fears with a friend in a high-risk group, first make sure you’ve spoken with them about their own anxieties. If you have, feel free to have an open discussion about where you stand. But if you haven’t asked them how they’re feeling, maybe hold off until you do. 

It’s just a bad flu (or any diminishing of COVID’s severity, for that matter).

Fam, I’m not going to get into the politics behind this statement, but let me just say, do you even know what a bad flu means for someone in a high-risk group? Sometimes we’re sick for weeks. Other times, we end up in the hospital! Each flu season I’m instructed by my concerned doctor, who pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose, that I, “of all people, really should get a vaccine.” Any small thing can turn into a big thing when your immune system is down. Diminishing the potential effects of this doesn’t help us at all. 

Yeah, but aren’t the people who die also super old? 

I think a lot of people actually say this in an effort to be comforting. They may think that what they’re saying sounds like, “Well, the people dying are different than you so you probably won’t die!” but that’s actually terrifying for most of us. It can sound like just because someone’s old, society thinks they’re expendable. And let’s be honest, who fought wars for you and changed your parents’ diaper so they could change your diaper? They do matter! (All of us do, ya jerk.) Saying things like this demonstrates that you may value certain people’s lives over others, which is scary for a person with health issues may be afraid that they’re seen as “lesser” in society. While in many cases you may mean well, it’s also just a philosophy you should perhaps evaluate. 

My friend with your disease had it and was hospitalized. 

Why do I need to know that? Why? I already know what it’s like for people like me!

You shouldn’t be going out. You’re at risk!

People who are at risk have our own needs to socialize and love, and ultimately how we manage this messed-up situation we’re all in is up to us. Some of us may want to stay in. Some of us may want to go out and see people when we can. My friendships have carried me through so much #trauma. The concept of not having human contact has been just as difficult for me as it has for all of you, and so I personally have opted to socialize when it was allowed. That choice is, again, personal. Let us allow what risks are worth it for ourselves. 

Here’s some things you should say to your friend you know a friend is in a high risk group:

Ask how they’re feeling about the pandemic and its risks.

We may have deeper fears or more nuanced feelings that we want to share. Sometimes simply knowing we’re in a safe space to be heard helps us feel better. 

Ask if there’s anything you can do to help alleviate their concerns.

This may mean running errands for them if they choose to stay at home more during severe outbreaks. This may mean sharing information on recent articles you read. This may mean simply knowing that if they do get severely sick and are scared about what may happen, they can call you. They will let you know, if you ask. 

Let them know it’s okay if they don’t want to talk about COVID at all.

A simple statement such as, “I’m going to ask you how you feel, but if you don’t wish to share it, that’s totally okay,” or, “If you’re sick of talking about this, I completely understand. Feel free to bring up whatever you want,” may really help. A lot of our family members and health care providers are obsessing about our routine and stance, so we may just not want to talk about the damn thing anymore. Or maybe, we’ve just heard about it too much from the news. Who knows! But either way, opening the door for them to respond as they see fit is always a good move.

Top photo by Dallas Athent

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