Thursday, January 30, 2014

Friendship Is a Basic Human Need Part 4 - How to be a Good Friend to a Friend Who is Chronically Ill

This post is in response to a reader question, which I loved.  Jo, from All The Blue Day, asked how to be a good friend to a person who has a chronic illness. 

If you know someone with a chronic illness it may be difficult to figure out what to say or what to do to help.  Ultimately, knowing that you genuinely care is the most important thing.  Don’t hold back from them just because you are afraid of saying the wrong thing.  But, these are some basic ideas that it would be good to consider.  (These are good suggestions whether they are a new acquaintance or an old friend.)

Keep in mind:  This list may seem long, but the suggestions are not very hard.  You are probably already doing several of these things.  Either way, just try to incorporate one suggestion at a time.  

10 Things to do for an ill friend

1.      Believe them.  In my opinion this is the most important thing to do.  Just believe what they tell you.  Believe that they are sick.  Believe that they are doing the best they can at this moment.  This simple act puts you ahead of the game as far as friendship goes.  If you really believe them this will come through in your words and actions.

2.      Express continued interest.  Ask gentle questions about them, their illness, and how it affects their life.  But don’t pry.  And don’t overwhelm them with too many questions.  Take things slow.  Get to know them a little better each time you meet.

3.      Respect their privacy.  If they want to talk about their illness, listen attentively.  But don’t force them to talk if they don’t feel like it.  It can often be a highly personal and emotional subject, and it might be embarrassing for them as well.  Also, if they do talk to you don’t betray that confidence by telling others what they have said.

4.      Understand that their illness is an everyday event for them.  It can affect every aspect of their lives.  And it can be wearing.  Be patient with them. 

5.      Talk to them about something other than illness.  Ill people have other interests.  And it is often nice to have a respite from concern about our health.  A nice talk on an interesting subject can take us out of ourselves.

6.      Think of them as a person not an illness.  Their illness is a big part of their live but it is not who they are.  Try to see and appreciate the personality behind the illness.

7.      Don’t expect them to keep up with you.  When you want to visit with them understand that you will need to slow down (or in some other ways adjust) to match their level of energy.  They may not be able to come to you, you may have to go to them.  Or, if they come to your house they may need special considerations – like a place to lie down or help getting in and out of the car.  Their time will be limited – so take advantage while you have them.

8.      Stay connected.  Even if they can’t get out or can’t have visitors try to stay connected.  Send a card or letter.  Now and then call or text (although be respectful if they are too ill for phone calls).  Let them know that you are still thinking about them, that even if they are not visible they are not forgotten.

9.      Be compassionate.  Sometimes this just means acknowledging what they are going through.  Don't feel that you have to fix their problems.  Just acknowledge them.  Often we crave people who do this because they are rare.

10.  Offer specific help in ways that are manageable for you.  You can offer to take them to the doctor or the grocery store.  Offer to run an errand for them while you are doing your own errands.  Offer to walk the dog or pick the kids up from school one day.  Or offer to help with a project around their house.  It is often difficult for them to keep up with daily activities like housekeeping.   BUT – don’t offer what you cannot give.  Don’t generalize (“call me if you need anything”), and if you do offer, it is important to follow through.  They will depend on that.

10 Things to say to an ill friend:

“I’m going to the store, what can I get you?”
“I’m bringing dinner Monday, can you have lasagna or chicken?” 
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I’m so sorry you are going through this.”
“I’m so glad to see you!”
“I appreciate your endurance.”
“Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not.”
“Do you want company or do you want to be alone?”
“I may not fully understand but I believe you and I care.”
“What events in your life are changing and how are you coping with the changes?”

10 Things not to say to an ill friend:

Well, you look good” or “You don’t look sick”.  This invalidates our suffering and makes us feel you don’t believe in the severity of our symptoms.

“You’re too pretty / young to be sick.”  Again, it registers as disbelief and negates our suffering.  Invisible illness cannot necessarily be seen on the outside.  And people of any age can become seriously ill.  

“I know how you feel.  I feel (tired, in pain, etc…) too.” 

“I’m tired.  I think I might have your illness also.”  

“I wish I could take a few days off to catch up on my rest.”  People coping with chronic illness are not on vacation.

“It could be worse.”  And then talking about how it is worse for someone else.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“Maybe it’s in your head.”

Don’t offer medical advice unless you are asked for it and are qualified to give it.

Don’t imply that if they have a setback, it must be because of something they did.

In conclusion
Don’t get bogged down in the details.  Maybe you could choose just one or two suggestions from this list to start with.  Don’t feel like you have to be a perfect. 
More than anything, sufferers need to know they are still loved and cared for.  You can make a lot of mistakes as long as you are able to express that you genuinely care about them.  They need your friendship.  Take these as guidelines, and just be a friend.

You might find more useful suggestions in the post Friendship Is A Basic Human Need – Part 1.  It discusses the difference between true friends and flaky friends.

 And now it’s your turn.  What are your thoughts on this subject?

More Coping With Chronic Illness posts:

Energy Economy Posts: 


  1. I appreciate these suggestions as someone who has health problems, but also because in dealing with people with serious illnesses, it is good to be reminded of how easy it is to listen without criticism, to believe them even when they suffer in a way we have never experienced, and to believe in our friend's intentions and motivation. I find that people who get to talk openly feel better for being heard-- I notice so often when giving people a safe place to talk, that they say that alone makes them feel better. I find it helpful to remind myself-- just like them, believe them, listen to them. Even those chronically ill need to be able to open up-- we can't push them to do it when they are not up for it, but we receive the blessings that come with deeper friendship-- and it feels good to give and actually be able to fill a need.

    1. Hi Emily! Thanks for your insightful comment. Its true, listening is one of the best gifts we can give a person - any person really, not just the ill. I have to remind myself of this as well.

  2. As someone who is chronically ill... this is certainly what I would like from a friend.

  3. Laina, thank you so much for that list. I really appreciate seeing that advice about listening, and the gentle questions. I hate intruding, but when someone is obviously not well, it is like the elephant in the room.. and unconditional acceptance, yes, we all want that, and I can see how incredibly frustrating it must be to not be believed when you don't have a 'visible' illness. I will take all these suggestions on board, thanks :)

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback Jo! I hope the post lived up to your expectations. I will be publishing another article on friendship in the future, but it is a little more detailed. And it probably won't be for a month or so. Anyway, I appreciate your interest in this subject. I hope things go well for you.