How to Support a Sick Friend or Loved One

How to Support a Sick Friend or Loved One

From my friends and family, loving someone who is chronically sick feels powerless and helpless. My parents, friends, co-workers, and siblings have admitted the emotional taxation. There’s the uncertainty of not knowing what to do or say at any given moment. There’s a fear of being tone-deaf, insensitive, or unintentionally hurtful. And frankly, if I were on the other side of the hospital bed, I would have the same apprehensions. 

As a sufferer of multiple autoimmune disorders, I’m not a stranger to doctor’s offices and hospital rooms. Life, at times, has been intense. This all feels a bit vulnerable to put down on paper, especially as I am writing this article for my job. And if you know me on a personal level, I am an “It’s all good!” kind of person and keep these things close to the chest. I try to be a Steady Eddy and let the past be in the past.

But at the end of the day, I’d be foolish to ignore the lessons I’ve learned as a result of my various illnesses. From my time in and out of treatment, I’ve gained a lot of insight to support someone through a tough time. In no way would I wish the learning method upon anyone, but I ultimately acknowledge the insight it’s given to me.

Before we move on, I am happy to report that my health concerns no longer live at the forefront of my life. I’ve received successful treatment to help me thrive in my day-to-day. I am lucky to be on the other side. So here I am, raising my hand for those who are in the thick of battling illnesses of various forms. I don’t know it all in this department, but I’ll speak to what I do know. 

Here are a few ways to support a friend or family member through chronic illness, seasonal sickness, or cancer: 

Offer Practical Help 

Chances are, your sick loved one needs some sort of assistance on the practical level. You might think you’re covering your bases by saying, “Let me know if you need anything!”. And while that is a kind sentiment to offer, I am afraid that gesture tends to miss the mark. 

In my experience, being chronically sick comes with a myriad of complex emotions. There’s feeling like a burden or worrying about being an inconvenience, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. The last things I wanted to do was A) ask for help and B) admit I needed it. 

I’d be willing to bet you’re never going to get an answer to “Let me know if you need anything!”. What has been more successful, for me, is people who allow me to give a yes or no answer. I don’t respond to an open format question. Giving specific demands goes against the grain of my personality, and I didn’t even realize what I needed. I didn’t have an answer, even if I wanted to give one. To better help, ask if they want help in more direct ways. 

Here are a few ideas that offer practical assistance: 

  • Drive to doctor’s appointment or therapy. Taking your loved one on a drive can help them veg out during the commute. Maybe they need to think and process, or maybe they need to go numb. They might want you to go into the waiting room or would prefer you sit out in the car. Leave it up to your person.
  • Shop and put away groceries. Serve as their own personal InstaCart! 
  • Schedule something fun. Give an emotional vacay to your person. More on this later. 
  • Drop off a home-cooked meal (or if you’re a long way from Gordon Ramsey, schedule a food delivery!). 
  • Attend treatment or therapy. If they’d like a buddy, a second set of ears, or emotional support, offer to go with them. But if the answer is no, respect their decision.
  • Clean their home or apartment. 
  • If applicable, take their dog on a walk. When I was too sick to give my dog proper attention, I’d harbor a lot of guilt. People helping with my dog alleviated that. Exercising their animal will also tire out Fido so your person can get adequate, uninterrupted rest.
  • Offer to give updates to their community. Chances are, especially in the thick of things, people are asking for updates on recovery. While this is well-intentioned, it can be exhausting for the patient. They might not want someone else to speak for them, but trusting this responsibility over to a trusted loved one could be immensely freeing. 

Ask What They Need

Somewhere along the way, we develop a fear to ask people what they need. We assume we should have the right thing to do or say. We try to fall back on our own experience or knowledge, which puts pressure on us to perfectly execute. Guess what? This might come as a surprise, but I didn’t expect my people to be mind-readers. I didn’t expect them to understand a path and an experience they had not walked. 

I want to free you of that responsibility and let you know, it’s okay to ask your people what they need. If they come to you with news, you can ask if they’d like your opinion or if they’d like someone to listen. At different moments in time, my answer would be different. What your sick friends need is going to vary, just like what you need does. 

It took some development in my emotional maturity to understand it’s also okay to not have an answer. Your friend might tell you they don’t know what they need, and that’s okay. They might get it wrong. You might get it wrong. But showing up consistently and trying – that’s where the real healing begins. Taking missteps leads to growth, and growth leads to emotional recovery. 

Express Empathy 

On the emotion to logic scale, I lean heavily on the logic side. That quality makes me a fixer by nature. My M.O. to a problem is to find the solution. And while that’s helped me through complex issues, it doesn’t make for the best trait in supporting a sick friend. 

My best gifts came in the form of people NOT seeking to find a solution. They came in the form of saying, “that sucks” and “I cannot imagine” and “I’d be mad/bitter/angry, too”. They were the people who sat with me in my various states, allowing me to feel what I needed. They didn’t try to solve the problem. I’ve learned a lot from those people, and now have to check myself when a friend comes to me. Don’t muscle your way through the issue. You don’t always have to throw logic at it. 

What does that look like in the practical? I’d recommend avoiding saying: 

  • It’s all going to be okay/work out. If your illness is not life-threatening, we know it is going to be okay. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, difficult, challenging, and unfair. If your illness is life-threatening, do I need to say more? Let’s refrain from this statement. While it’s intended to be helpful, it’s usually not. 
  • Everything happens for a reason. This insinuates that pain and suffering are intentional. There are varying beliefs on this statement, but it’s best to avoid it. It’s not helpful. 
  • Anything with traces of false or forced optimism. 
  • I know how this feels. Unless you’ve walked a mirrored path, you do not. It’s okay that you cannot relate, so resist the urge to pretend you do. 
  • Relating the experienc to someone you know/something you’ve been through. These stories might not be as helpful as you think.
  • Pity. Don’t make the person feel like a charity case. There’s a fine line between empathy and pity. 

Instead, here is what you can say:

  • This is hard. 
  • You’re allowed to feel X, Y, and/or Z. 
  • I am here to listen. 
  • You’re handling this so well. 

Keep up a cadence of checking in 

Chronic illness is a marathon, not a sprint. I am grateful for the people who stood by me in intense times. Hear me on that. But, there seems to be a dwindling of support once the initial “buzz” dies down. Remember to check-in, follow up, and stay in contact. Just because someone is released from the hospital doesn’t mean their battle is over. Normally, it’s only begun. 

To stay connected, leverage the following methods of communication:

  • Send Voice Memos
  • Schedule Regular Phone Calls 
  • Send a Greetabl Gift. My personal favorite? The Here For You Print. You can even schedule a delivery for important appointments, anniversaries of their remission, etc. 

Remember important dates

My best friend rocks at remembering crucial doctor’s appointments. She follows up and opens up the conversation for me to discuss as needed. This gives me space to externally process. It’s freeing to not have to bring up on my own, as I know there is someone ready to listen. 

Schedule emotional breaks 

Before doing this, refer to the above section on “Ask What They Need”. Ask if your people need a distraction or some fun. Be realistic about energy levels. A trip to the nail salon might not seem like anything too exhausting. But, you’d be surprised how much treatment can take out of a person. All it takes is a simple ask! 

Maybe it means scheduling a massage. Maybe you come over with RomComs (DM Greetabl on Instagram to get my list) and sit together. People who allowed me to feel a twinge of normalcy again were my lifeline. I am so thankful for the people who asked if I wanted to escape and took the steps to provide a vacay from reality. 

Supporting a Parent or Caregiver 

Watching my parents during my illness, I know there is an emotional strain on the caregivers. Duh, right? But there’s something about seeing your parents as skeletons of people. With bags under their eyes. Those visuals make the reality click. 

Meaningful ways you can help:

  • Offer to do laundry 
  • Run Errands
  • Drop off a home-cooked meal
  • If the parents have multiple children, offer to take the other children out. Being a sibling of someone chronically sick is hard, especially at a young age. Offer to take them out for a bit of fun. Other ways to help include driving them to extracurricular activities or school. 

Colds and Flus and Other Woes

Need help supporting a friend or loved one through cold and flu? Seasonal illness can be tough, as people often don’t want to ask for assistance for temporary illness. But just because this is less intense doesn’t make it still hard, especially if you’re a parent. Just because you’re sick doesn’t mean your responsibilities are paused. 

So, what can you do? 

  • Offer free babysitting
  • Drop off chicken noodle soup (or soup of their choice), cough drops, and Nyquil 
  • If they live with others, offer somewhere for their family or roommates to stay. This feels like a generous ask, but especially for those with immunocompromisd individuals in their families, this gesture is extremely helpful. 
  • Send a “Get Well Soon!”-themed Greetabl, complete with Eucalyptus Shower Tabs or Lemon Lime Hand Sanitizer 

Cancer and Other Ongoing Treatments

One of the worst words in the human language: cancer. No matter what form, hearing the word makes your stomach drop and heart sink. There’s a lot of fear around the diagnosis, both for the patient and their support system. 

I am not going to pretend to know what to do when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, so I am going to point you to this resource from the American Cancer Society. 

Without having first hand experience, my best advice: 

  • Do your research.
  • Speak with a licensed counselor and/or attend support groups.
  • ASK your person what you can do. 
  • Offer to communicate and give updates to others on their behalf. 
  • Help with day-to-day tasks. 
  • Love them well. 

Regardless of what your people are going through, know that reading this article means you’re stepping in the right direction. Listen to others with similar experiences, but more importantly, listen to your loved one. 

Sending my best for health and happiness. 

Megan Golliver is the Marketing Specialist for Greetabl.