Recently, I came down with a terrible bug that progressed quickly and mercilessly into bronchitis then asthma. I was rendered helpless for a few days, feeling too weak to venture far from my bed.
Fortunately, I made a full recovery. But the experience gave me a taste of how it feels when that is not the case.
It’s hard to know what to do when serious illness strikes a good friend, especially if the prognosis is life-threatening.
Pushing past our own fears around mortality, sensing what is best in the moment, and knowing where the boundaries lie between supportive and intrusive requires empathy and honest communication. Possibly more than the friendship has ever required before.
Vulnerability, on both sides, can intrude, making it difficult to stand close while a friend faces the uncertainty, and sometimes the inevitability, of a diagnosis.
Denial, grief, physical pain, and loss of control can relegate one to taking life one step at a time and their future one moment at a time.
It’s disorienting and frightening and can conjure up defenses, making a person resistant to accepting assistance with daily routines – especially with things they used to take for granted – and even more so the new protocols and treatments.
It’s hard to be a good friend in such times. But it’s possible. It requires sensitivity, a tremendous amount of patience, and the courage to enter into a friend’s world.
I know, I’ve done it. I walked along this path with a friend from her diagnosis of stage 4 stomach cancer to the end of her life. I’m passing this along in hopes it will help you if, or more likely when, you are faced with the sudden life changing news of a good friend.
Here’s what I learned:
Everyone reacts to grave news in their own way. It takes time and often – many attempts to come to grips with the ramifications of a serious illness. Your friend may expend lots of energy fighting the reality and attempting to change it.
That’s hard to watch, but it’s part of their process, and if you can suspend judgement, you can provide security and comfort through this difficult time.
It’s difficult to remember but the truth is, this is their journey and not yours. You may believe you know more and would handle the situation a better way, but you can’t know for sure until you’re there. So, be respectful and let them work it out for themselves.
You can’t fix this. You can be supportive, kind, patient, and help your friend stay as comfortable, safe, and well as they can be in any given moment, but there is no promise that any of your efforts will do more.
Even so, being comfortable, safe, and well-cared for will make a world of difference to them, so what you’re offering matters.
For some, food is comfort. Offer home-cooked meals and sit with them while they eat, providing good company and a sense of connection.
But be aware that their appetite might be affected by their condition or treatment. Encourage them to eat well but recognize that food may not always be appealing.
Sometimes the best comfort is delivered in silence. Spend time with your friend just being. Sit in the sun of a warm afternoon and listen to the birds, or take a short walk with them.
Snuggle up under a blanket and watch their favorite movie together. It can be exhausting to constantly focus on their condition. Sometimes, they need to escape their own thoughts.
Ask to run errands, do the dishes, set up a calendar to be sure they have someone to drive them to appointments. Help with the simplest of tasks can make a big impact on their daily lives.
Do your best to sense their moods and their needs. Allow them the space to be in their own moment without trying to pull them out of their sadness. They need to feel what they feel.
Lend a shoulder to cry on, a strong hand to hold through the fear, and a supportive ear when they wish to share. But remember all these things come in their own time.
Being there for a friend who’s traveling along the road of sickness is taxing and fraught with its own set of emotions for you too. Be aware of your own health and be kind to yourself.
Take frequent time off from their routine and deeply immerse yourself in your own life. You cannot pour from an empty cup; remember to fill yours.
There is really no wrong way to be a good friend as long as your intentions are pure and your efforts come from your heart. Show up as the best version of yourself and your friend will be better for what you bring.
How do you take care of a sick friend? What do you think is important to do in such circumstances? Please share your thoughts with our community.