5 Things to Know About Supporting Your Chronically Ill Friend
The diagnosis of a chronic illness can be difficult for many to grasp. The concept that the person isn’t getting “better” in the next few days or weeks is foreign to many, particularly young people. The classic condolences, “Feel better soon” or “I hope you get better soon” don’t seem to do justice to the enormity of what lies ahead.
Remember, looks can be deceiving. A bit of make-up and a smile can cover a world of pain hidden inside. Beware of the comment “you don’t look sick.” Often it can invalidate the struggle hidden inside.
Instead, take the time to really listen. To ask questions and show you genuinely want to understand what their body is experiencing. Ask them how it impacts a typical day. You don’t need to be a medical expert or have a clue what the acronyms, tests and treatments all mean. Just showing an interest will be incredibly validating.
You may feel way out of your depth, confronted by the dramatic change in your friend. It may be harder to connect to them as their experience is now so different than your own.
Here are five key points I think your friend with chronic illness would love you to know:
1. They might feel like a burden.
Due to the chronic, unknown nature of the illness, they might wonder if/when you will eventually give up on them. They might be terrified that you will get “sick of them being sick.” Consequently, reaching out for support, prayer, etc. can be exceptionally challenging. You can help with this. Simply taking a few seconds out of your busy schedule to send a “How are you honestly feeling today?” message can make the world of difference. To your friend stuck in bed, battling incredible pain or vomiting in the bathroom, your message will be a reminder that they aren’t alone. A glimpse of light in the darkness. It will mean the world that you took that time not only to think of how they were doing, but to act on that thought. (I am in tears writing this because I know just how powerful this act of kindness can be.)
2. They are still the same person as before the illness.
Chronic illness presents a challenge to the dynamics of relationships. Your friend may not be able to go out like they used to and their personality may be altered. However, despite the external changes to their circumstances, underneath they are still the same. They still value the relationship incredibly (actually more now), they love you and they care about you and what’s going on in your life. You don’t need to walk on egg shells around them or keep your struggles from them as a way of protecting them. I think you will find that your friend has become a great listener and more empathetic than they were previously. They will likely delight in you sharing your life with them – it’s like tasting a piece of normality. Chat with them normally, like you would any other friend.
3. Communication is key.
You may have your own emotions about your friend being sick. You may find it really hard to watch them crying in pain or struggling to walk. Perhaps you are unsure whether to still invite them to events. Please don’t avoid what is uncomfortable. You can talk to your friend about how you feel and have a discussion regarding the impact of the illness on your relationship. Communicating how you feel is by far better than silence or distance. If you are going through a rough period or are too busy to keep in contact, communicate that. Your friend will almost certainly appreciate you addressing where you are at and feel relieved you’re willing to approach the “elephant in the room.”
4. Your friend doesn’t expect you to “fix” them.
Perhaps one of the hardest parts of the illness for you is feeling powerless to do anything about its existence. Perhaps you are the kind of person who likes to offer a solution to people’s problems and cross oceans to heal their pain. It can therefore be hard to accept that there isn’t anything you can “do” to change this situation. Feelings of guilt may arise – guilt that they are struggling so much while your life remains relatively unchanged. The situation may seem unfair to you. Perhaps this is the origin of the condolence “I’m sorry” – I know I have used that one many times before. Again, the greatest help you can give your friend while feeling this way to be present. Either through phone calls, a message or showing up at their house (whatever is easiest for you). Walk with them through the hurt, fear and grief. Actively listen. Please don’t avoid them because of that uncomfortable feeling of guilt – I assure you, it’s not your fault.
5. Stick around. Be consistent. Be faithful.
After a while the flowers will droop, the shock of the initial diagnoses and dramatic life change for your friend will wear off. That person however, will still be struggling, likely with the same kind of pain they were in at the beginning. But the greatest thing you can possibly do in this period – in the weeks, months, years following – is to simply show up. To check in. To be there. Be there to celebrate the moments of victory and also be prepared for the valleys.
Friend, I thank you for being there for my fellow chronic illness warrior. We appreciate you immensely. In fact, tears are building in my eyes as I reflect just how far a little bit of kindness can reach. Never underestimate your impact on their life. How your presence, your smile and support influence their world.
We were never meant to walk this journey of life alone.
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Thinkstock photo via william87.