How to be there for a friend who is sick

A huge segment of the population will suffer an ailment at one time or another. Do you know how to be there for a friend? Perhaps someone you know or love has cancer, ALS, muscular dystrophy, kidney disease, or some other progressively limiting or debilitating condition? How can you be there for them? Pat Collins cites great ideas in her newsletter from June 2021. The following are ways to offer support are not always intuitive or easy on either party, a few things to do (and not to do) to stay positive for and helpful to your friend during their time of need:

DO:

  • Offer to help: Even the smallest things or daily needs can be overwhelming for a person who feel sick. Ask your friend or loved one what you can help with, not IF they need help. If they aren’t sure, offer suggestions: May you go grocery shopping for you? Drop off meals? Load or unload the dishwasher? Might you offer to help with the cleaning or pick up and drop off your kids where they need to go? Perhaps you might offer to mow the lawn or deliver their mail. You might even offer to simply sit and read to them from their favorite book or a gossip magazine. Ask that they help you identify anything you might do to lighten their load.
  • Ask if they would like to talk or offer to listen: People who feel sick are often met with one of two types of conversation: a) Conversation that entirely avoids their illness, or b) Conversation focused on their condition and how they feel medically. Either can result in frustrated feelings for the person in pain. Simply be a friend and offer to be a supportive listener without trying to fix anything, without offering advice, and without minimizing their feelings. Let them simply feel what they feel, and avoid trying to change their feelings.
  • Ask permission to visit: Some don’t want visitors when they feel sick, others want someone to sit with them. Ask before making a visit how your friend feels about that so they have the opportunity to let you know if it’s not a good time. Remember not to personalize their response.
  • Support caregivers: Remember that the family members/spouse/partner of the person who is sick may need a break. Ask how you can support them too. It’ll go a long way to both the person who is sick and their cherished one who you’re helping to preserve.

DON’T

  • Avoid your friend: It can be difficult knowing what to say to a friend who is ill or suffering and it can feel anxiety-provoking knowing what to say or afraid of saying the wrong that. Avoiding your friend, however, can cause more pain. Take time and space if you need to process their news, but also be mindful that your friend may need you. Put your feelings aside if needed, and be there for your friend. Simply saying “I’m here for you” or “What can I say that would help right now?” goes a long way.
  • Tell them everything is going to be OK: Reassurance and false platitudes may make you feel better, but can feel frustrating and insincere to the person who is sick, especially if they don’t believe that. Avoid saying things you don’t know as fact. Focus instead of making supportive comments like, “We’ll get through this together. I’ll be right by your side through it all.” Then, be that.
  • Make comments that they don’t look sick: People mean well when they do this, but it’s another example that feels invalidating to the person who is sick. Each illness or disease is different and may manifest in different ways that aren’t visible to the naked eye. False hope and reassurance can push your friends/loved ones away, if it feels you’re more concerned with making yourself feel better than seeing your friend as they truly are/feel. Simply say: “I’m happy to be with you…

I’ll never forget the words of a friend Nathaniel years ago when my father was sick and in a rehabilitation hospital. I was staying nights to make sure they would keep him there and that he was able to receive the care he needed there. I felt so alone and I didn’t want to burden anyone to go out of their way to visit or support me while I was there. When Nathaniel realized where I was, he came by to visit us both. I thanked him for coming, letting him know how alone I felt. He shared that people seldom know what to say in times of grief and reassured me, “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be in this moment.” I’ll never forget him or his words.

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