5 Things You Can Do for Your Chronically Ill Friends
True friendship is not about being there when it is beneficial for you. It’s about being there when it’s not. Any disease has a way of weeding out the weak of heart, especially when it comes to friendship. Chances are, if you are reading this, a chronic illness has touched your life in some way.
What happens when it reaches your best friend? What can you do when your friend is chronically ill? How do you help them cope? What do you say? What can you do to help?
There is a whole lot you can’t do for your friend, but here’s what can do.
1. Treat them as if nothing has changed.
If you begin to walk on eggshells around them or start treating them as if they are “sick,” they may resent you. Your friend may not want you to change the way you see them. I am not saying that you shouldn’t be conscious of their condition and their needs. What I am saying is if this is a new life-altering diagnosis, they may feel like the walls are crashing in around them. Life as they know it is drastically changing. Any shred of normalcy you can provide will be a break from their new reality.
2. Gain knowledge about their illness.
Google their disease and read patient blogs to become informed. Be sure to look up the condition on reputable websites you can trust. Beware that everything you read online is not always true or may not apply to your friend. Try to form a big picture of the diagnosis. For example, what is their disease? What body systems does it effect? What will life like with their condition? What care is needed for their best quality of life? Forming a broader view of the illness will help you not focus on the negative information that you may come across.
While surfing the world wide web you may come across some scary stuff. Try to keep in mind while researching that your friend could be the exception, not the rule. They may do quite well in managing his or her care or have milder symptoms of their disease. My parents were told I most likely wouldn’t graduate high school. It would be amazing if I lived past my 18th birthday. My doctors introduced my parents to some cystic fibrosis (CF) patients at the hospital where I was born to give them a picture of what the future held for me.
My parents to this day, 29 years later, recall how scared they were. They were met with smiling faces. When they looked closer they saw patients malnourished almost to the point of emaciation, barrel-chested, and tethered to an oxygen tank struggling able to breathe on their own My parents were devastated. What kind of life would that be for their little three month old baby? Today, for myself and many other cystic fibrosis patients, things are looking quite different. I don’t look like those other patients did, and I am so lucky that I can do aerobics, roller skate, and even dance. So don’t believe everything you are read online, see or are told by others. Again – please remember your friend could be the exception, not the rule.
3. Keep your opinions to yourself.
From reading all those websites, you may be brimming with knowledge. Stay quiet about your findings from all your research. You may have a strong urge to tell your friend that you read about something that might help. That is a great gesture and incredibly thoughtful. There is a time for you to share this knowledge, but not right away. Let them talk and try your best to be supportive of their medical decisions. It is their health, not yours. Advice is not well received by chronically ill people, especially by “healthy” people.
In my experience, I have felt that my loved ones are trying to “fix” my disease. Which is very kind. Who wouldn’t want to find a solution to the problem for someone they love? At the time, though, I just needed them to be present, listen, and be supportive. Empathy is challenging to muster, especially in this situation. You may have never had a chronic illness or even been exposed to the medical field to that degree. No matter what holistic, essential oil, organic, sugar-free, or whatever you found that is “the cure” – keep it to yourself. I know from experience when you are sick, you just need a friend. It is that simple. Don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. Just be there.
4. Advocate for them.
Go to significant appointments with them. It makes a big difference when you have another person in the room who heard what the doctors said. Most doctors have the uncanny ability to talk way over my head. I lucked out with my pulmonologist because he is very down to earth, he listens, he is informative, and he makes sure I understand completely what the plan is. Other specialists not so much. When it is medical information, two sets of ears are better than one. When I have received undesirable news all I could hear was my mind ruminating on the bad news, The rest of the conversation sounded like charlie brown’s teacher talking in the background. I missed the description of the diagnosis. I missed the treatment plan for how to manage the new diagnosis. I left the office with my head spinning and almost in tears. A friend would’ve been useful for that appointment. They would’ve heard what I couldn’t.
5. Don’t pity your friend.
As a person with a chronic illness, I could have a doctorate in faking being “OK.” I don’t ever want anyone to feel sorry for me. I am too proud. One of my best friends, also fighting chronic illnesses, described it quite well, “I don’t want pity because I never want to mistake it for love.”
Follow this journey on The Girl in the Yellow Mask.
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