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Blue flowers beside "You are Loved" Sign


Julia Aruya is a 37-year-old sickle cell disease (SCD) patient from Lagos, Nigeria. Being the only one of four children to be born with SCD, her discomfort was intensified when people asked how she felt about being the only child with this terrible disease in her family and if she ever felt sorry for herself being the only one who “got it”. She would always answer “NO”, never wishing this type of terrible, painful life on someone else. Though perhaps innocently stated, these types of questions and comments, appear to be inappropriate, allowing us to observe that people very often do not know what to say when confronted with someone who is seriously ill. They do not know how to be helpful or how to comfort, encourage and inspire…

In essence, many of us fail to experience sympathy and empathy for people facing serious life challenges. Unfortunately, this failure often causes additional discomfort to ill persons, such as SCD patients, including in the employment context. In our next article, we will explore some of the difficulties SCD patients face in employment.

In order to better ensure that we do and say helpful, positive things when we meet someone with SCD, it is beneficial to understand these two often interchanged and misunderstood terms.

Some Simple Definitions defines these terms as follows:

Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.

(taken from ) defines these terms as follows:

Sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone else who is experiencing misfortune. This sense is often seen in the category of greeting cards labeled “sympathy” that specialize in messages of support and sorrow for others in a time of need. You feel bad for them … but you don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes.

Unlike sympathyempathy…is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

To sum it all up …

The differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms is:

  • sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters
  • empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another

(taken from )

Compassion is another term often used synonymously with pity and sympathy. defines it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”

Again, these four (4) terms are often used interchangeably, though this is not necessarily accurate.

In light of these definitions, do we ask ourselves:  “How would I feel if I were seriously ill?” “What we would I like others to say and do for me if I were sick?” Once we develop answers to these questions for ourselves, do we then say and do for a patient that which we would like for ourselves or if we were in their shoes?

In desiring to convey positive sentiments to SCD patients (i.e. expressions of sympathy and/or empathy), here are some steps we can take:

1 .Visit them and bring warmth to them

a. When you arrive at the home of the sick person, try to stay positive and avoid dwelling on negative things. You could open the conversation with phrases like: “I’ve been thinking a lot about you”, “It’s good to see you”, “I’m glad I was able to visit you”, etc.

b. Be mindful not to overstay your welcome. Most sick people cannot handle long visits. Try to stay 20 minutes or less, especially if the patient is in pain or tired.

2. Listen to their words with sincerity

Sometimes, when people are sick, they feel like pouring out their hearts to someone. During these moments, you don’t have to say much. Just give them your full attention.

This alone can bring out the best words, and emotions from within you — which can just be a smile or a nod.

3. Along the lines of staying positive, ask if they would like to hear some recent updates with you or those in your mutual circles. A change of topic is often welcome as many patients are wearied with talking about their illness.

4. Send a custom and/or handwritten card.

Avoid cliché words. There are many inspirations you can use. Try to be genuine and humorous. Here are some examples of “get well soon” messages:

a. May your recovery be a short but restful one. We’re all thinking of you during this time and we hope you’re back on your feet soon.

b. Sending you healing thoughts and a little sunshine to brighten your day.

c. Wishing that each day brings your renewed strength, brighter times, and a healthier, happier you. Get well soon.

d. As you rest and heal, know that you are thought of warmly and wished a quick recovery.

e. Wishing you all the best with your recovery. May you use this restful time to recharge and energize. All the best.

f. The most important thing in illness is never to lose heart. Our prayers are with you. Get Well Soon.

g. Don’t worry; we’re here to stand alongside you as you work to recapture your good health.

h. Get well soon! Together, we shall make the bond of our friendship even tighter and stronger.


Regarding the next set of suggestions, it is best to offer to do something specifically rather than telling the patient to let you know if you can do something for them. This would put unnecessary burden on them to think of how you can help them, what would be appropriate to ask of you, etc.:

5. Do household tasks or errands, regardless of how dull and mundane: cook dinner, clean out the refrigerator, take their children to school, pick up their groceries or dry cleaning.

6. Offer to attend medical appointments with them.

7. Offer to drive them somewhere they need to go.


One Don’t that we think is wise to follow…

8. Don’t tell the patient they look well. More likely than not, they know they do not look their best given the illness, medications and treatments they are under; this type of comment will draw their attention to this negative, somewhat discouraging fact. It is more appropriate and positive to say something like “I admire your strength. You’re going through a tough situation”.

All things considered, a little compassion and practical empathy can go a long way to make someone feel special, appreciated, valued, remembered, encouraged and supported.  Demonstrated compassion and empathy will also help them to keep facing the challenges of their illness with the hope of a positive outcome.


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