Discovering that your friend has been diagnosed with a serious illness can be a real shock and leave you feeling helpless and wondering what to do next.
You can’t cure your mate, that much is true, but you can seriously contribute to their happiness, tolerance and resilience. Actually, you can make a real difference.
Research suggests that people with a strong support network may be able to feel less pain and are better able to deal with their condition. People with good friends in their lives may even have an increased chance of survival.
So far from being useless in this situation, you can really do some good – mostly just with sustained loyalty, tact and love. There are a few things worth thinking about here. Let’s go through them, shall we?
Don’t be offended if they don’t want to see you
Often, people with a serious condition have to live their life day to day, not knowing if they’re going to wake up to a good day or a bad day.
Their symptoms can flare up without much notice, which can make socialising difficult to follow through on. Try to be extra flexible with your mate, don’t take it personally if they need to postpone and be open to last minute changes to plans. Learn to forgive quickly and make it really clear you understand.
You do not want your friend adding shame or guilt to the way they feel because they are uncomfortable about bailing on something you’ve organised together.
Give them the option to get out of dinner or brunch easily and suggest another time to hang out.
Go for practical gestures
It’s delightful to be emotionally supportive so do reiterate how much this person means to you – but it’s also really helpful to be pragmatic and opt for practical gestures of support.
Ask if your friend would like you to accompany them to a doctor’s appointment or to cook them a meal if they’re not up for preparing something delicious for themselves.
Bring them their favourite trashy magazine, take their dog for a walk, bake or turn up with a jar of pesto and a pack of tortellini. You can offer to drop things over, pick things up, do some driving or simply be on decent snack duty.
Running a life with serious illness can be arduous – try and lighten their load a little.
Make your long term support clear
Secretly, your friend might be living in fear that you will get bored, or impatient, or run out of empathy and eventually abandon them. Some serious illnesses are for life so try and make it clear that your companionship is too.
Reiterating how much this person means to you is lovely, but make sure your contact is relatively constant. Be proactive and diligent about being there for them, in health and in sickness.
Say out loud (or by text) that you care about them and show them you mean it by remaining a reliable, compassionate support in their life.
Research their condition
It can be difficult to explain your symptoms to someone, even if you’re close and especially if they’re in any way embarrassing.
It’s absolutely worth doing a little research on your friend’s condition so you’re informed, and it can save them from having to give you a medical summary of what they go through.
No need to be an expert, just some basic information is a really good idea. Don’t be too invasive with questions about their illness either – instead, go for some more general, open-ended offers to talk about it, if that’s what they’d like to do.
Suggest low-key hangout sessions
If your friend is in pain, exhausted, scared or exasperated by their illness, they’re probably not going to fancy any sort of high-energy social situation.
They might not want, or even be able to go to parties, clubs or loud places.
When you’re planning how you’ll spend your time together, think about their energy levels, their access to certain locations and their capacity to join in on what you have planned.
You might like to make it perfectly clear that you don’t mind what you do together, even if it’s just hanging out at home with a cup of tea, in front of Netflix.
Your friend might really appreciate having the option of some low-key hangout sessions. One-on-one time is also way less overwhelming than the dynamics and demands of a group situation.
Learn to listen – because it’s not about you
When your friend does want to talk about what they’re going through, practice active listening, rather than rushing to offer a cure or a solution.
Really, properly listen to what they have to say and respond sensitively.
Prompt them with tactful, relevant questions but don’t pry. It’s a delicate art, active listening, and so often so many of us forget to try it.
Also, resist the temptation to make every conversation about you. It’s lovely to be compassionate but if your friend has ME or chronic fatigue, for example, and she’s talking about how tired she is, don’t tell her you know how she feels. It’s not about you and you don’t have to offer up your own experience to make her feel heard.
Pay her the courtesy of listening to what she’s going through, acknowledging that it must be really difficult and giving her the chance to be candid about how she feels.
As her friend, it’s probably the greatest favour you can do for her.
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