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9 Ways to Better Support Someone With a Chronic Illness

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As I become more open about my fight with chronic illness, more people seem to ask me one of two things:

1. “What’s a cool gift idea for a sick friend?”

2. “How do I better support someone with chronic illness?”

The further along I get on this journey, the more I understand and appreciate that people in my life love me, like I’m sure you love your chronically ill friends or family. The thing is, most people want to be supportive and encouraging but don’t know where to start.

I’ve come up with practical ways to better support someone with chronic illnesses to help you help those you love. Keep in mind, the key is coming from a place of love and understanding in trying to being a supportive friend, family member, or significant other to someone facing things you can only imagine.

Disclaimer – chronic illness affects everyone differently. Adjust each suggestion where necessary. On behalf of all patient warriors, thank you for taking the extra step to learn how that best support us. Here are nine ways to get you started:

1. Check in: Truth is, many of us fighting a chronic illness develop the habit of not staying in touch and not communicating simply because our lives have changed so much that we don’t know how to relate anymore. Reach out and check in just to let us know you care, even though we suck at texting, calling, emailing, and Facebook messaging. Checking in may seem like you’re putting in more effort than your loved one, but by doing so you are taking the two extra seconds to make them feel supported and care for in a practical yet easy way.

2. Listen: When we finally do reach out to our loved ones, often times we are met with unsolicited advise, testimonials of new cures, and judgements to our coping mechanisms. Or somehow the conversation becomes all about the other person. Not sure if this is a chronic illness life thing or just a sign of unhealthy relationships, but when someone reaches out to just talk, try not to relate by using examples from your life in a way that marginalizes their current pain, challenge, or victory. My best friend is the best at this, she says, “Brittani, I can’t fit your shoes. All I can do is imagine and support how you best see fit. If I can’t do anything else, I can listen.”

Sometimes we just want to bend someone’s ear without the nuance and political correctness. It’s hard enough facing everyday surrounded by people who do not share your reality, but it is much easier when you know you have someone whom you can lean on for support. This is a simple, yet practice way, to support someone with a chronic illness.

3. Be flexible: When I first got diagnosed there was roughly a six month period where all of my friends came to visit and we hung out at my parent’s house as I wasn’t able to live alone anymore. Then eventually my friends faded. In the beginning this hurt, but later I realized our new dynamic wasn’t the friendship they bargained for. Look at it like this, before I was diagnosed I would be down to hike, have drinks, go dancing, etc. After I didn’t feel much like doing any of those things and my interactions with my friends were more low energy and “inside times.” Perfect example, my boyfriend may plan for us to do something like he did on my birthday. I didn’t feel well and instead of making me feel terrible because he went through so much trouble, he was flexible enough to enjoy a “Netflix night in.” He understands that it’s not what we do but whom we do it with. He understands that I may plan to do many things but sometimes my illness makes me a social flake. Being flexible is a very practical way to support someone with chronic illness.

4. Learn about our illness: Often times we fight illnesses no one has every heard of, but a quick Google search will give at least a basic understanding of the medical diagnosis. Arming yourself with this knowledge is a practical support tip because knowing what triggers flares, how typical symptoms present, and warning signs of complications will help you and your loved one better communicate through navigating treatment and coping strategies. The key here is not to become doctor WebMD, but rather familiarize yourself with your loved ones condition to better support them, not police them.

5. Don’t join the pity party. Use it as a moment of encouragement: Truth is, it’s hard everyday. Living with a chronic illness sometimes is a moment to moment kind of lifestyle. When it gets really hard, it can be tough to handle emotionally. If you see or detect that your chronic illness loved one is a little down, don’t join the pity party but offer words of encouragement.

A major key to this practical support tip is emotional intelligence. Being aware that everyone, especially your chronically ill loved one, could use a few words or actions if encouragement. This may be supporting us by leading by example, like perhaps practicing positivity for a day or eliminating negative self-talk. It can be difficult to support someone through depression or sadness, but remember a little boost of encouragement is far greater than criticism or pity. In the long run this practical support habit will help develop healthier coping mechanisms over time (in theory).

6. Support versus enforcement: Speaking of healthy habits, I think emotional intelligence is huge here, knowing the difference between being supportive and an enforcer. You’ve taken the time to learn about your loved one’s illness and now you know they shouldn’t be eating chips or drinking coffee. Support healthy habits by buying “healthier snacks” or a coffee alternative, but don’t become the health police enforcing dietary restrictions or whatever.

By understanding our reality is likely different than yours and it’s like “dieting” right, sometimes “unhealthy” things happen, but dwelling on it serves no one. Practicing this concept of quickly letting go of “not so good choices” after they are done and moving forward to better is the future. It is a practical, yet healthy mindset, to help better support your loved one. It’s also an overall life mentality right?

7. Be present: In a digital age of less physically presence and more online presence, showing up in person to spend time with anyone, especially your chronically ill loved one, is a super important practical support tip. We travel to tons of doctor’s appointments, lab draws, infusions, tests. We often go by ourselves, but having company every so often is a great way to make someone feel like they aren’t in it alone. Maybe you can’t attend an appointment, but you can drop by after work for a cup of tea or quick chat – do it. Don’t allow the hustle and bustle of life to distract you for the actual important things in life.

8. Acceptance and change: In my opinion, many of my friends and family compare whom I used to be to who I am now. It’s as if their disappointed in who I am now. Simply accept that who I used to be and who I am now have changed as far as my physical abilities and lifestyle habits, but my heart is still the same. Accepting I am not the same as I was before and how we interact changes, but try not to allow yourself to get stuck in the mental time warp where your expectations of your loved one are measured from the bar of their former selves. Interactions will likely change, embracing and accepting this is a practical yet a huge way of supporting your chronic illness bae.

9. The long haul: This may seem obvious but chronic illness is chronic. I found that many of my friends had a mental expiration date of my new interactions, low energy, and doctors appointments. The thing is, I have life-long illnesses, just like everyone else with a chronic illness, and we need you to be in it for the long long haul. Recognizing that this is our reality everyday, we will need encouragement forever, we will need support forever, we will need love forever, and we will need your partnership in understanding that our fight is forever.

This is the last practical way to support someone because it is the most important. No matter what you do, if you do nothing else, remember that having a chronic illness is something that your friend or loved one will live with for the rest of their lives, and they would appreciate you and your relationship so much more if starting today you realize that we are “forever sick.” We will have good days, we will have bad days, but everyday we need you, your love and support to keep going!

Now that you’ve read the list, do you have questions? Have any words of advice to add? Comment below and let’s talk about it.

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Thinkstock Image By: monkeybusinessimages

Originally published: November 10, 2017
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