Elizabeth Fredland | Health matters: 5 ways to support a friend with a serious illness

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When a friend is diagnosed with a serious illness, it can be hard to know what to do. Not knowing what to do or say — or what not to do or say — sometimes keeps much-needed support at a distance. Instead of going into hiding, use these simple tips to provide the support your friend needs. It will be deeply appreciated.

Step 1: Listen. When you hear of someone struggling with an illness, reach out. The first thing you need to know is how they are responding to the diagnosis. And the only way to learn that is to ask. Simply ask how they're dealing with the diagnosis.

Responses may vary dramatically from, "I'm choosing to think only positive things," to "I'm scared and have no idea what this means for the rest of my life." All responses are completely reasonable and appropriate given the life-changing news they may have received.

Step 2: Listen some more. Next, you need to ask if they want talk about their illness. Again, responses may vary. But here's where you really need to listen and take your cue from what you hear. Let it guide what you do and say next.

If they say, yes, they'd like to discuss it, ask if they want your company or to talk by phone. Regardless of how you connect, be a listener and not a talker. It's tempting to want to reassure, but avoid sharing every story and detail you know about anyone who has ever dealt with something similar.

Your friend is likely already dealing with information overload. They're wrapping their mind around their own diagnosis, treatment options, and medical terms they have never heard of and never wanted to learn. They don't have the headspace to take on whatever your Aunt Millie dealt with five years ago. Keep the tales to yourself, unless asked.

And be sure to thank them for confiding in you. It takes energy and a lot of trust for someone to open up and share what's happening and how they are feeling. Make sure you acknowledge and honor that.

If they say don't want to talk about their illness or they don't want company, let them know you hear them, but also that, should they change their mind, you'll be there.

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Step 3: Be helpful. You want to relay all the ways you are willing to lend help and support. As nice as it sounds, asking what you can do actually puts the burden of thinking through needs on your friend. Again, their mind is reeling with questions and new information. So don't ask, tell.

Tell them what you can do and when. Whether it's setting up a meal schedule online and driving them to appointments or picking up their kids and doing laundry, be specific. Think about the kinds of day-to-day things in your life that would still need to be accomplished even you if you were taken out of commission. For me, that list would include dragging the garbage to the curb (and back), feeding and walking animals, getting the mail, house cleaning, grocery shopping, meal prep, etc.

If you're friend has a spouse or other caregiver spending a great deal of time with them, think about how you can support that individual. Tell them when you are available for a few hours to give them time to take a walk, sneak in a nap, go to yoga, or whatever it is they want to do.

Step 4: Be uplifting. Of course, if you don't have time or don't live near your friend, cards and appropriate gifts are always a nice way to remind people you're thinking of them. But I would suggest avoiding being overly serious. Your friend is living 24/7 with their illness. Don't deliver them yet another reminder of it. Instead, aim for something positive or even lighthearted. Give them a moment in the day where they can think of something other than being unwell.

Think about making a date to watch a movie or a television show together while connected by phone. If you want to really show you care, consider sending a "binge watching kit" in advance. Depending upon their condition or restrictions, it might include a popcorn bowl and kernels, movie-sized candies, comfy socks, a customized water bottle, or a super soft blanket. Not only do they get the distraction and joy of opening a package, they also get the anticipation of doing something fun and unexpected with a friend, and the time "together" enjoying a movie or show.

Step 5: Stick around. Bear in mind that some conditions, treatments, and recoveries can be lengthy. Make an effort not to disappear. Your ongoing kindness and support matters and is just as crucial as your initial efforts and gestures.

Throughout it all, the best thing you can do for your friend is to be there, however you're needed, and do your best to understand and adapt as their needs change. Granted, it isn't going to cure their illness, but knowing they have someone in their corner will make it all a little more bearable for them.

Elizabeth Fredland, LICSW, is the oncology social worker at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center.


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