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8 Ways to Be a Good Friend to Someone With a Chronic Illness

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Life with a chronic illness can be tough. Having people around to support you, be there when you need a shoulder to cry on, and provide practical support is essential. But many people struggle to know how to be a good friend to someone with a chronic illness. So as someone with several chronic illnesses and lots of wonderful friends, I put together some helpful tips:

1) Ask questions and listen.

Both are essential here. Most of the time your chronically ill friend is likely to know what they need, but they may not know how to ask for it. Or they may not know how to instigate a conversation about their needs.

Many with chronic illnesses worry they are a burden or hassle to others because they might need accommodations to do things differently. Remember that accessibility is not an afterthought and reassure them of this also. Openly communicate, ask questions, and listen carefully to their answers.

2) Be thoughtful.

There’s nothing worse than finding out your friends have made exciting plans which aren’t accessible to you due to your chronic illness. This could be due to the location or logistics of the event, the food served not adhering to dietary requirements or even the scents/lighting or other environmental factors forming a barrier.

It can be difficult to know exactly what might impact someone with a chronic illness, and that’s OK. Even simply asking “what works best for you?” before making plans can mean the world.

3) Don’t assume what they can and can’t do.

Comparisons to others are unhelpful, even those who may have the same health condition(s). Also keep in mind that chronic illnesses fluctuate, from good to bad days, or “flares” as we call them. Things can change even within the space of a day, so be receptive to their needs and prepare to be adaptable.

5) Don’t expect them to constantly educate you.

Even though it’s good to ask questions, remember that people with chronic illnesses aren’t Wikipedia. Don’t expect them to constantly explain their illnesses to you and understand that they may not want to talk about it all the time. Perhaps do some of your own research about their condition and how it may impact them, but also keep in mind that their experience will be unique and personal.

6) Empathize sensitively.

Saying “you understand” can be comforting, but it’s also OK to admit there are things you’ll never truly understand about their illness and experience with it. And yes, this means avoiding saying “yeah, I totally get it… I get headaches too” to someone with chronic migraines. It’s OK to make mistakes. Making an effort to understand and empathize is the most important thing here.

Most of all don’t try to offer them cures, advice, or similar unless they explicitly ask this of you. Most people with chronic illnesses just need you to listen.

7) Check up on them.

The loneliness and isolation of chronic illness can be shattering. From days spent in bed due to symptoms to chronic pain, chronic illness is often relentless and exhausting. This means they might need to cancel plans, or might read but not reply to your messages. Often, this leads to us being called “flaky.” Be understanding and don’t be offended if you don’t hear from them in a while. Pain, exhaustion or mental health difficulties related to their illness may be to blame. And don’t hesitate to send a follow-up message even just asking how they are or letting them know that you’re thinking of them. It may be enough to bring a smile to their face on a difficult day.

8) Accept their illness and use the labels they choose.

Many of us have heard on multiple occasions: “but I don’t see you as disabled!” or “you don’t look sick.” It is important that those with chronic illnesses feel their experiences are valid. Further to this, labels like “disabled” are helpful and ensure access to the support they may need. And it’s a part of who they are! So don’t be afraid to use the labels they feel comfortable with using.

Getty image by Nadya Ustyuzhantseva.

Originally published: March 23, 2021
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