Etiquette expert says Bruce Willis’ diagnosis reminds us what to say, not say when others are ill

Bruce Willis’ family last week announced that the Hollywood star would be “stepping away from his career.”

The family indicated that Willis, 67, had been diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder.

In an Instagram post, Demi Moore, Willis’ ex-wife, wrote, “This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support.” She added, “We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him.”

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Almost immediately, scores of people on social media began sharing words of comfort, sympathy and more.

(LR) Rumer Willis, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Tallulah Belle Willis attend the after-party for the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at NeueHouse on July 14, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.  <span class="copyright">Phil Faraone/VMN18/Getty Images For Comedy Central</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/DRTAttUEonkUFs4q5Un58A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5Nw–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/Sma2ddx9af9C5bOcOLlxnQ–~B/aD03MjA7dz0xMjgwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/02ab396702f0786bce4a60a76d49214f”/><noscript><img alt=Phil Faraone/VMN18/Getty Images For Comedy Central” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/DRTAttUEonkUFs4q5Un58A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5Nw–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/Sma2ddx9af9C5bOcOLlxnQ–~B/aD03MjA7dz0xMjgwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/02ab396702f0786bce4a60a76d49214f” class=”caas-img”/>

(LR) Rumer Willis, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Tallulah Belle Willis attend the after-party for the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at NeueHouse on July 14, 2018, in Los Angeles, California. Phil Faraone/VMN18/Getty Images For Comedy Central

The situation reminded an etiquette expert of what people should say to those who are suffering from serious illness (or their families) — and what people shouldn’t say.

Jacqueline Whitmore, based in Florida, told Fox News Digital that one eloquent message on social media particularly stood out to her as kind and appropriate.

The person wrote, in part, “I will be praying (as millions of us will) for Bruce as well as all of you. Sending healing and love and light. May this difficult time be made easier and more comforting knowing how much you are all loved and supported.”

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Whitmore said that as lovely as that message was — many other people seem to “struggle with their emotions and their words.”

As a result, they miss the opportunity to extend truly welcome and appropriate words of kindness.

Actor Bruce Willis attends CocoBaba and Ushopal activity on Nov. 4, 2019, in Shanghai, China.  <span class="copyright">Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/RswJV7axgncFVSHINUn6Qw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5Nw–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/g9hAEtmLSNmOvQ7h8h3zoQ–~B/aD03MjA7dz0xMjgwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/dc29576f043492fe5de061d4c82c4869″/><noscript><img alt=Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/RswJV7axgncFVSHINUn6Qw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5Nw–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/g9hAEtmLSNmOvQ7h8h3zoQ–~B/aD03MjA7dz0xMjgwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/dc29576f043492fe5de061d4c82c4869″ class=”caas-img”/>

Actor Bruce Willis attends CocoBaba and Ushopal activity on Nov. 4, 2019, in Shanghai, China. Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

As someone who regularly advises clients on proper etiquette for many everyday situations — including preparing guest rooms for visitors, tipping during the holidays and more — Whitmore shared thoughts on what to say, and not say, in a situation such as severe illness.

“There really is no perfect, exact way to respond when someone’s been diagnosed with a serious illness,” she told Fox News Digital via email.

Yet “just the fact that you care enough to reach out and offer a kind word is often enough.”

Bruce Willis attends the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at Hollywood Palladium on July 14, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.  <span class="copyright">Rich Fury/Getty Images</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Orwlv2WHf6ass7Xa6mDd2A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ3MA–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/cfjcFYGCH7828T3ID5P9CA–~B/aD0yMDAwO3c9MzAwMDthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/32f3bba690fc036ab34b0c6ba20ec0fd”/><noscript><img alt=Rich Fury/Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Orwlv2WHf6ass7Xa6mDd2A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ3MA–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/cfjcFYGCH7828T3ID5P9CA–~B/aD0yMDAwO3c9MzAwMDthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/32f3bba690fc036ab34b0c6ba20ec0fd” class=”caas-img”/>

Bruce Willis attends the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis at Hollywood Palladium on July 14, 2018, in Los Angeles, California. Rich Fury/Getty Images

Whitmore shared a few examples of the right thing to say in such a situation:

“Please know I’m thinking of you and holding you in my heart.”

“There are no words. Just know that I care.”

“I’m sending lots of love and light to you and your family.”

“I’m so sorry to hear this news. My heart is with you.”

“I can’t possibly know what you’re going through, but you have my support in whatever way is needed.”

“My thoughts (and prayers) are with you. I’m here for you whenever you want to talk.”

Just as important, noted Whitmore, is understanding what not to say — and why. Here are examples of comments that would not be appropriate to say:

“You must have been devastated when you heard the news.” (It’s best not to speculate or assert how a person might feel, advised Whitmore.)

Bruce Willis is shown here along with daughter Scout.  <span class="copyright">Getty Images</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/nipryTmtY2NS75Cg0GnDZA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5Nw–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/NMXoxl88DazVg5wWofMs2A–~B/aD03MjA7dz0xMjgwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/314a4cf5c0b173f4a5dc3f66b4a250de”/><noscript><img alt=Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/nipryTmtY2NS75Cg0GnDZA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTM5Nw–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/NMXoxl88DazVg5wWofMs2A–~B/aD03MjA7dz0xMjgwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/fox_news_text_979/314a4cf5c0b173f4a5dc3f66b4a250de” class=”caas-img”/>

Bruce Willis is shown here along with daughter Scout. Getty Images

“The Lord has a plan for you.” (The person may or may not share your faith beliefs or practices, said Whitmore; also, many people are focused on the here-and-now, and not yet thinking well into the future.)

“Let me share my experience with you.” (This is not about you!)

“I know exactly how you feel.” (Whitmore noted, “Everyone’s situation is different. Never assume you know how someone feels, even if two situations seem similar.)

“Look on the bright side. It could be worse.” (There is no point “in comparing one person’s illness or situation to another’s,” said Whitmore.)

“How did this happen?” (It’s best to refrain from asking probing personal questions.)

“A serious illness is never an easy topic of conversation. That’s why some people are afraid to say anything at all, and as a result, they avoid it completely,” said Whitmore.

“But be warned,” she said.

Your silence on the matter can be perceived by the person who’s suffering as hurtful — just when that person most needs kindness, compassion and thoughtfulness.

Whitmore said that an offer of help in such a situation is often accepted gratefully.

And “don’t wait for the person to ask for a favor,” she emphasized. “Take the initiative.”

A few ideas for assistance — depending on how well you know the person — include offering to cook meals and drop them off; offering to run errands; seeing if you can help with child care, pet care, or general tasks around the house; and choosing to put together a thoughtful care package filled with baked goods, magazine, puzzles and the like.

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As time goes by, it’s wise to remember to check in with the person now and then, said Whitmore.

“Even a quick text or note saying, ‘I’m thinking of you,’ can go a long way during a person’s recovery,” she said.

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Whitmore is founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, a premier business etiquette and hospitality consulting firm in Florida.

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