For many of us, when we find out that a friend or family member is seriously ill, we wonder how we can be supportive. Just thinking about it can send us into a tailspin. Not only because we are sad about their diminished health, but because we often don’t know what to say. When we are fearful of saying something inappropriate, we sometimes choose to say or do nothing at all.
It is helpful to remember that when someone is ill, that person is the one in pain. We need to focus our attention on what he or she needs. Most often, what someone needs is simply to be heard, sympathetically. We can offer to listen sensitively and that, in itself, can be a source of comfort.
Everyone is different so what works for someone may not work for someone else — and what works at the beginning of an illness may not work as they are deep in the throes or toward the end of treatment. Here is where you can take your cues from the person. You may feel it’s important to offer the name of another doctor once your friend has decided and has confidence in someone else. As hard as it is, you may just need to keep quiet. Ultimately, being there when a friend or family member is ill is about present; listening, without judgment; and in specific situations where we KNOW we know a better path, forgetting about being right.
What I am sure of is that support comes in a variety of ways. A “sit by the beach” can do a world of good. So can going out for coffee. If going out is not possible, arrange a movie night with Netflix and bring popcorn. The key is for each of us to find ways we can be useful without taking over the person’s life (this can be a moving target that requires paying attention). The important thing is that we don’t disappear. We need to reach out over time. If the person who is ill isn’t up to talking or visiting, that is fine, we just have to remember that we must not “go away”.
We need to let the people we care about know we are available and will stay for the long haul. A few months into it, when everyone else has gone back to their lives, THAT’S really when visits and conversations may be most needed. Their dog needs to be walked, their laundry needs to be done, and dinner still needs to be cooked and delivered. We need to remember that often, people feel less well as they move along the road to recovery. It is part of the process until they begin to feel better.
A person who is ill may not believe they can “do it” (whatever “it” is). Our role is to remind them that they can and they will — even when they don’t believe it themselves. As a supportive friend or family member, staying in touch and, if appropriate, reminding them how far they have come) can be encouraging. We all need to be “held” by our friends and family, physically and metaphorically. Sometimes they feel (rightly or wrongly) that nobody is interested in hearing them “complain.”