• Other Friendship Advice

Have A Friend With Coronavirus? What To Say and What Not To Say

May 10, 2020 | By | Reply Continue Reading

Many of us are shocked to learn that a friend, neighbor, colleague or family member has been diagnosed with coronavirus. It shouldn’t be a surprise at all since the virus is so rampant. But it’s still frightening and a reminder of our own vulnerability when it hits close to home.

With a disease that has no precedent, has an uncertain course, and still no effective treatments, it can be awkward and uncomfortable knowing how to respond to such news from a friend. Ordinarily, we might want to give that person a hug but right now we are obliged to be socially distant

The stakes of figuring out the best things to say or do are especially important because your friend who has been diagnosed is feeling far more stressed and vulnerable than you.

My first friend with coronavirus

Friend with Coronavirus: Sheryl Kraft

Sheryl Kraft

My own friend and colleague, Sheryl Kraft, was one the first of my friends to be directly affected by coronavirus. We were speaking on the phone towards the end of March, when Sheryl told me that she had lost her sense of smell. She suspected that it might be COVID because she had been with her daughter-in-law, who had experienced the same symptom a few weeks earlier. 

When Sheryl felt weak and fatigued, her doctor recommended that she be tested and the results of the COVID-19 confirmed her suspicions. I checked in with Sheryl periodically, wondering what was too often or not enough, and not really sure of what to say and what to not say. 

I prevailed upon Sheryl, a health journalist, who is now totally recovered who and hopes to donate her convalescent plasma to help someone else, to think about how we can rally to the occasion when we find out a friend has coronavirus.


Were you apprehensive about telling friends about your diagnosis? Why? How did you decide to handle it?

Sheryl:  Yes, especially after I told a few people and they overreacted with responses that were very dramatic. And fortunately, I had a very mild case so to me, their reactions were overblown. I then realized that most people were terrified by the diagnosis and would look at me with pity or worry, and I didn’t want that. I was anxious enough!

Is there anything a friend can say to make you less fearful? What were some of the ways friends behaved that were supportive and uplifting?

Sheryl:  Yes, friends can help and provide support. Some very close friends were very understanding and calm enough to hear me out and let me tell them I was okay. They were able to understand my anxiety and not let theirs eclipse mine.

How can a friend be supportive in the way that an immediate family member cannot?

Sheryl:  Both friends and family should try to remain calm and take the time to listen to the facts, both from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other reliable sources and from the person who had COVID and be careful not to overreact. 

COVID is so unknown and new and is understandably frightening, but as a friend it’s important to step back and not feed into the other person’s fear. 

Were there any instances of someone saying things that were hurtful or demoralizing?

Sheryl:  Yes, my aunt actually. She audibly gasped when I told her. Then she solemnly said, “Oh, I’m sooo sorry.” I wanted to say, “What are you sorry for? I’m fine!”. She said that even before asking me how I was feeling or was being affected. 

What are three things a friend should say or never say to someone with COVID? 

Friends should say things like:

“So what’s your case like?” Or they may want to say “How do you feel about your symptoms/condition?” Because it’s important to realize that the symptoms of COVID run the gamut from being extremely mild or asymptomatic to being extremely serious.

“This must be scary for you.” Because it’s important to acknowledge the fear that goes along with the diagnosis.

Friends should not say things like:

“Oooh, I’m so sorry,” making the assumption you are very ill 

“OMG!” Yes, a friend wrote in an email to me. It’s important for friends to try not to pass on their fear to the person who has been diagnosed. Instead, try to stay neutral while expressing concern and staying connected.

“Where did you catch it?” Friends should be careful not to suggest the diagnosed person was somehow irresponsible or did something foolish to expose themselves. It comes across as sounding accusatory. A better way might be to ask, “Do you have any idea where you might have been exposed?”

Since you had breast cancer in the past, did friends react differently to COVID than they did when you were diagnosed with cancer?

Sheryl: No, let me explain and clarify: I feel like it was very much the same. I had breast cancer when I was quite young and people my age feared it and didn’t know much about it. They were afraid of it happening to them. If I was vulnerable, so were they. Because of that, they reacted out of fear, pity or plain ignorance. I hope I’m not sounding judgmental because I’m not saying it was wrong. It was because they were not yet experienced knowing a lot of people with breast cancer. 

In many ways, it was the same with COVID. Many people don’t know more than the awful images they see in the news, so they react disproportionately and out of fear. They also personalize itl I  think when I told them I had it, they were terrified of it happening to them, too.

Overall, did your friends in large part meet or disappoint your expectations?

In spite of what I just said above, I’m happy to say that many of my close friends exceeded my expectations. Some sent beautiful things like flowers and food and gift baskets; others checked in with me constantly. They were wonderful. However, one was rather disappointing, and used it as a political platform to air her views, which did not sit well with me. 

Will your diagnosis have any impact on your future friendships? 

Probably not. The friends who showed up for me are dear, old friends that I know I can always count on. The people who reacted out of fear aren’t close friends.


About Sheryl Kraft: 

Sheryl Kraft is a health journalist, who has written hundreds of articles on all things health for publications and websites including AARP, Parade, Prevention, HealthyWomen, WebMD, Everyday Health and more.

She is the co-founder of thePause newsletter, which is a new inclusive and smart newsletter for women, ages 45+, featuring the health information and insight we need to survive and thrive in the most challenging and confusing time of life.

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Category: OTHER ADVICE

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