Helping a Friend Who Is Seriously Ill

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

A friend is seriously ill. You want to help, but you are not sure how to go about it. This article will guide you in ways to turn your cares and concerns into positive actions.

Give the Gift of Presence

Perhaps the greatest gift you can give your seriously ill friend is the gift of your presence. Particularly if you live nearby, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your support by being there, literally, when your friend needs you most. Visit your friend at the hospital or at home-not just once, but throughout the course of the illness. Rent a movie and bring popcorn. Play cards or Monopoly. Sit with her and watch the snow fall. Your simple presence will say to your friend, "I am willing to walk this difficult road with you and face with you whatever comes."

Do respect your friend's need for alone time, though, and realize that her treatment may zap her energy. She may not be up for company all the time.

Be a Good Listener

Your friend may want to openly discuss his illness, or he may avoid discussing it. The key is to follow your friend's lead. Keep in mind that your friend will experience this illness in his own unique way.

Allow your friend to talk about his illness at his own pace. And while you can be a "safe harbor" for your friend to explain his thoughts and feelings, don't force the situation if your ill friend resists.

If you can listen well, you can help your friend cope during this difficult time. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools. Don't worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words your friend is sharing with you.

Learn About Your Friend's Illness

"People can cope with what they know, but they cannot cope with what they don't know," I often say. You will be better equipped to help your friend if you take it upon yourself to learn about his illness. Visit your local library and consult the medical reference books. Request information from educational associations, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Heart Association. With your friend's consent, you might also talk to his physician.

If you educate yourself about the illness and its treatments, you will be a more understanding listener when he wants to talk. While you shouldn't inappropriately intervene in his medical care, you might also be a more effective advocate.

Be Compassionate

Give your friend permission to express his or her feelings about the illness without fear of criticism. Learn from your friend; don't instruct or set expectations about how he or she should respond. Think of yourself as someone who "walks with" not "behind" or "in front of" the person who is seriously ill.

Never say, "I know just how you feel." You don't. Comments like, "This is God's will," "Just be happy you are doing as well as you are" or "It could be worse" are not constructive. Instead, they hurt and make your friend's experience with serious illness more difficult.

Offer Practical Help

Your sick friend will probably need help with the activities of daily living. Preparing food, washing clothes, cleaning the house or driving your friend to and from the hospital for treatment are just a few of the practical ways of showing you care.

Stay in Touch

If you are unable to visit your sick friend due to distance or other circumstances, write a note. What do you say? Tell your friend how much she means to you. Reminisce about some of the fun times you've shared. Promise you'll write to her again soon-and then follow through on that promise. Avoid sending a generic greeting card unless you've personalized it with a heartfelt message.

If you're not comfortable writing, consider sending video- or audio-taped "notes" to your friend. Or simpler yet, pick up the phone.

Get Support for Yourself

Someone you care deeply about is seriosly ill. Odds are you will need support, too, as you explore your own feelings about this illness and the changes you see in your friend. Find someone who will listen to you without judgment as you talk out your own feelings. And don't forget to take good care of yourself. Eat nutritious meals. Get ample rest. Continue to exercise. Spend time doing things that make you happy.

Realize Your Own Limitations

Not everyone can offer ongoing, supportive friendship to someone who is seriously ill. If you feel you simply can't cope with the situation, try to understand your reticence and learn from it. Ask yourself, "Why am I so uncomfortable with this?" and "What can I do to become a more open, compassionate friend in times of need?"

Do not, however, avoid your friend altogether. People with serious illnesses are often abandoned by friends and family, leaving them lonely and depressed. Phone rather than visit. Write if you can't bring yourself to phone. Let your friend know that this situation is difficult for you while at the same time acknowledging that your friend's fears and needs come first.

On the other end of the helping spectrum, don't become obsessed with your friend's illness or feel that you must be her only means of support. Do not emotionally overburden yourself.

Embrace Your Own Spirituality

If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you during this difficult time. Pray for your friend and your friend's family if prayer is meaningful to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you are angry at God because of your friend's illness, that's OK. Find someone to talk with who won't be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings you need to explore.

A Final Word

Your friend needs you now more than ever. At a time when words are inadequate, offer your presence whenever you can. I use three phrases to remind myself of my role as a caring, compassionate friend: Mouth closed. Ears open. Presence available.

About the Author

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and presents dozens of grief-related workshops each year across North America. Among his books are Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas and The Healing Your Grieving Heart Journal for Teens. For more information, write or call The Center for Loss and Life Transition, 3735 Broken Bow Road, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526, (970) 226-6050 or visit their website, www.centerforloss.com.