If you’ve read what not to say to someone with migraine, you may be wondering if there is anything left that you CAN say. The answer is yes, absolutely! There are plenty of ways to show you care. Here are 13 suggestions to get you started.
“I believe you.” When an illness is invisible, people have trouble believing that the symptoms could be debilitating. Thanks to the common perception that it’s “just a headache,” people are even more dubious about the severity of migraine. Because of this, many people with migraine feel like few believe how horrendous and disabling a migraine attack can be. Telling a migraineur that you believe what they’re going through is real is more valuable than a brick of gold.
“It’s not your fault.” There’s a tendency to blame a person for illness (smoking = lung cancer, unhealthful diet = heart attacks, stress = migraine). When the illness is both invisible and regarded as insignificant, the sick person is heaped with additional blame. Not only do people with migraine hear from the outside world that migraine is their fault, many of us have internalized the message and wonder what we’ve done wrong to bring on every migraine attack. Having others recognize that we’re not to blame is a tremendous salve – and can remind us to be easier on ourselves, as well.
“It’s clear that you’re trying very hard.” (Or, as a friend said to me, “You’re moving mountains.”) There’s a cultural belief that if you just work hard, your health will improve. This may be true for some people with migraine, but not for everyone. Some work their tails off to reduce the frequency or severity of their migraine attacks – taking medications with horrible side effects, limiting their diets, controlling all possible lifestyle-related triggers, and more – yet barely improve. Beyond the work of taking care of one’s health, even getting out of bed to go to the bathroom during a migraine attack can take monumental effort. The validation of our loved ones seeing how hard we try is a reminder that we really are doing the best we can.
“You are brave and strong.” When a person is in the thick of a migraine, life becomes about getting through the day, sometimes even just the moment. With this narrow focus, it can be hard to see the bigger picture – like the fact that facing yet another day with horrendous pain, nausea, vision trouble, stroke-like symptoms and so on takes enormous strength and courage. Having someone tell us honestly that they see that struggle as brave is wonderful encouragement. [Some people with migraine take umbrage at being told they’re strong. If you think the person you’re seeking to comfort might not appreciate it, it’s better to find something else to say.]
“I miss you, but I understand why you’re not around.” It’s nice to know that your friends miss you and want to spend time with you. However, just hearing “I miss you” can send a migraineur into a spiral of guilt about letting you down and fear about the future of your relationship. Adding “I understand why you’re not around” is a gentle reminder that you don’t blame them for not being as present in your life as you’d both like.
“I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” It’s tempting to reach for vague words of comfort instead of admitting you don’t know what to say. Often, though, it’s far more soothing to hear that someone wants to support you and is at a loss for words. Attempts at comfort that miss the mark are usually more hurtful than they are helpful. Think about what message you’re really trying to convey – it’s probably that you care for the person and want to support them. Why not say exactly that?
“It’s OK if you have to cancel plans.” Canceling plans due to a migraine is tremendously difficult. Not only would we rather be having fun than having a migraine, we don’t want to let people down, nor do we want to hurt the people we care about. It’s always a relief to make plans with someone who will understand if we have to cancel. An added bonus, it will probably work in your favor – if a friend gets angry about cancellations, we’re less likely to make plans with them in the future.
“No need to call/text/email me back.” Migraine can be terribly isolating. We have to cancel plans and don’t always have the mental bandwidth to return phone calls. Send a quick message to let them know you’re thinking about them and specify that they need not respond. The migraineur will feel supported without feeling pressured to add another thing to their to-do list once the migraine lifts.
“I read that article you sent me about migraine.” If someone sends you an article or post about migraine, it’s because they want you to understand something about what their life is like. That you took five minutes to read the article shows how much you care.
“What can I do to help?” Even if a person is able to function early in a migraine attack, they’re probably stressed and trying to tie up loose ends before being laid up for hours or days. Dropping off a report to a coworker or taking out the trash will take you only a few minutes, but will be a tremendous relief to the migraineur. (Note that the wording of this question is very important. It communicates that you genuinely want to help and that you’re ready to do so. In contrast, “Let me know if I can help” can sound like a vague offer out of a sense of obligation. “Do you need help?” can shut people down because few people like to admit they need help.)
“I have some time to do X, Y or Z for you this week. Which would be most helpful for you?” “What can I do to help” is great during a migraine attack, but if someone has frequent attacks or chronic migraine, offering to provide practical help with life tasks can help take a lot of pressure off in those precious hours when they don’t have a migraine (or when the migraine is mild). Here’s are 10 ways you can help someone with migraine. Choose two or three that you’d be happy to do and offer those as choices. That will help the migraineur feel like they’re not burdening you with chores you’d rather not do.
“What is a migraine attack like for you?” Most people think they know what migraine is like, but few without migraine truly understand the breadth and severity of its symptoms. Even if you do grasp what migraine is like for your cousin Jim, your friend Lisa could have a very different experience and set of symptoms. Set any assumptions you might have aside and listen to the answer. You may be surprised by how much you learn about your loved one and their character by how they cope with migraine.
“How does migraine affect your life?” Migraine impacts a person’s life in ways far beyond individual migraine attacks. It can dictate how vigorously a person can exercise, the times they go to sleep and wake up each day, what they do for fun or relaxation, and even if they can have sex. For someone with migraine, it always looms nearby, waiting to strike – and many migraineurs live in fear of when the next attack will hit. It’s hard to carry all this frustration and fear, yet many of us are afraid that talking about it makes us sound like we’re weak or complaining. Being able to talk about the impact of migraine can be a great relief.
These are just examples, of course. Not every suggestion will be appropriate for every person. What matters is that you find a way to truly connect with your loved one who has migraine. Being curious about what it’s like to have migraine, actively listening to what a migraineur has to say, and offering support and encouragement are all great ways to do so.