Let’s be clear: This guide is meant to be just that — a helpful guide. I hope and pray you will never find yourself walking the lonely halls of those who struggle with chronic illness, but perhaps you know someone who is. If I know you well, it is your heartfelt desire to love them well, with purpose and intentionality. But it can be tricky.
Those who are fighting illness on a daily basis most likely have very little time and energy to nurture your relationship, despite how precious it is to them. This means they also have very little time and energy to express to you what they need. So today I seek, in the smallest way, to guide you in some practical ways to love them well.
1. Talk or don’t talk, but let them lead the way.
I remember early on in my pregnancy with my daughter — the dark days of physical suffering and the emotional shame and hiding that came with it seemingly never-ending —my dear friend stopped in to check on me one day after she got off work. She found me on the couch, tears of shame and fury streaming. I was violently ill most days (in addition to my neurological issues), and each time I got sick I also wet myself. I hated myself but also hated the rest of the world, which I perceived as being happy and carefree. “You OK, momma?” she asked. “Rough day,” I said. “Want to talk about it?” she asked. “Not that much,” I sniffed. With that, she picked up the remote and asked what I’d like to watch. I said I’d prefer something without happy people, and she suggested “Moulin Rouge,” noting that she died in the end and he was miserable and alone but there were a lot of really good songs before that. I declared that a winner. That was the last we spoke that afternoon. But before she left she made sure that I was well-fed and clean and comfortable.
I am not saying we should always leave people in their gloom. There is a time for taking people by the hand and gently calling them to get up. But that day was the day for providing a safe landing place, free of judgment, full of love and without the pressure of talking or entertaining someone. Sometimes talking just requires more energy than is available and other days all of the emotions must be vomited out. Either way, let your friend take the lead, and when in doubt, just ask.
2. Bring food.
I can’t tell you how far this simple, practical act of care can go. I have a friend who says, “Breakfast is love.” But I would suggest that food is love, a warm meal is love. How often I have stayed hungry instead of forcing myself from the bed or asking someone else to inconvenience themselves to feed me. “Can you feed me?” can be a humbling request to make. Many medications must be taken with food. Feed the ones you love, and feed them well.
3. Offer up the nap.
If you have asked your loved one what they wanted for Christmas or their birthday and they laughingly said, “A nap,” I will bet you $5 there was no actual joking involved. How I long to kiss folks on the mouth who free me to nap, who watch kids so I can sleep or who set me free from rest-guilt. It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving. Not sure what you can do for your friend? Feeling helpless? Offer up the nap.
4. Do not create pressure to meet your expectations.
I know this is hard because try as you may, you do have expectations and it hurts when they aren’t met. As in any relationship, the way around this is open communication. Often, what was realistic one day will not be realistic on another. Managing expectations may be tricky as limits fluctuate daily. Your ill friend will be trying his darnedest not to beat himself up for continually not meeting his own expectations. Feeling as though he’s also failed you will be too much to carry. He’ll need consistent reminders that you love him for him, not what he does or does not do. Your actions and attitudes will need to support this.
5. Allow room for grieving the daily losses along the way.
I know, I know, you don’t want them to be sad. You want them to see the bright side, that life is still good and there remains much to be celebrated. And they will, and they should see that, but they still need room to grieve the fact that they didn’t make it to the concert at school or the event at work celebrating the accomplishment of their spouse, the family reunion, the beach trip, whatever. Maybe they need to grieve their hair loss or job loss or whatever their illness has taken from them today. Let them. Join them. Meet them there in their grief. Let them know they are not alone in the grief. Validate the loss. I believe this grieving along the way has to happen, intentionally. Otherwise it all piles up and the grief rots inside, turning to bitterness and anger over time. And after they’ve cried their tears and let the grief go, meet them in their gratitude, choosing to see all that is still right, worthy of being celebrated. Don’t rush the grieving. Don’t forget the celebrating.
6. We sleep a lot. Don’t shame us for it.
Don’t tell us you wish you could sleep all the time. No, you don’t. Not like this. And neither do we. We want to be productive people, living productive lives. Unless it’s an extreme emergency or you know our specific sleep schedule leaves us awake at crazy hours, assume we sleep at least 12 hours a night and make room for it without making a big deal out of it.
7. Let our friendship be a guilt-free, judgment-free zone.
Does this one require explanation? I hope not.
8. Lay off the pep talks and makeup.
I say this as lovingly as possible. When I was giving birth to my son, two days into labor and three hours into pushing, my well-intentioned husband (who kept dropping my leg) turned to me and said, “You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.” After I killed him with death ray eyeballs, I thought, “I’d love to see you do this through Christ who strengthens you.” After I had my daughter, I meant to make a rule that no one who came to visit me in the hospital was allowed to wear adorable trendy clothes, have a perfect blowout or wear makeup, but I forgot. So don’t you know, I have an album full of supermodels straight off the runway and then me with my so-swollen-I-look-like-an-alien head and my perfect baby.
When you are in the fight of your life every day, fashion and perk aren’t always at the top of your priority list. Having someone meet you right where you are — in your pajamas — can go a long way.
9. Be about the details.
This looks just like it does in any relationship — it’s just the sick version. Stopping at the store and picking up the prescription because you know it’s time for it. Bringing the bag of Jolly Ranchers from the store because you know they help with nausea, not cooking that thing because it causes nausea. Asking how that doctor’s appointment went because you know it was today, or not asking about that doctor’s appointment because you know they don’t like to talk about it.
10. Beware of the product-pushing.
Know that your person doesn’t make their health decisions lightly. More than likely many hours of research, prayer and discussion led them to where they are. I know you believe in your product. I am going to tell you a secret: There are at least five more of you who also believe in their own, different product with equal passion. And eventually all that passion can just feel like a lot of pressure and being pulled in a lot of unnecessary directions by a lot of well-intentioned people. Leave your information. Let them make the decision. And in the end, let your friendship be a guilt-free, judgment-free zone.
Thanks for loving your people so well. We’d all be lost without you.
Follow this journey on Chronically Whole.
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