How do I support someone who is living with chronic illness?
What an important question. When we know someone is sick in an acute or curable way, we can say, “feel better,” or “get well soon!” We can send a card, send a text, send flowers and hope the difficult time will pass. But when someone has a chronic or long-term disease, it isn’t simple to know what to do or say to provide comfort. What should we do? Here’s my list of the top five dos and don’ts of offering support to someone with chronic illness:
1. DON’T say “I know how you feel.” This is pretty minimizing and unless you’ve been in just the same circumstances, you likely don’t. You probably can’t fully imagine what it’s like to have unresolved health conditions that have gone on for years. It is wonderful to empathize and sometimes even sympathize with the person you care about, but please don’t go this step further and co-opt her experience by saying you know what she is going through or how she feels.
2. DO ask, “how are you?” After a prolonged or chronic illness, many people stop asking this question. Being someone who asks this question and listens to the real, honest answer is a compassionate and supportive thing. We need people in our lives who care about our experiences. Also, I was raised to believe that telling you about my experience of sickness was tantamount to complaining, so oftentimes I need some prompting to open up about how I’m doing. Your support and encouragement will go a long way toward making me feel loved and cared for.
3. DO tell me about what’s happening in your life. During some of the darkest and scariest times in my illnesses, times when I was struggling to breathe and wasn’t getting out of bed, people were hesitant to tell me about their life and their problems, feeling as though they paled in comparison to mine – like, “how can I complain about my job when you’re going through all of this?” But the reality is: a) This isn’t a pain Olympics here. Pain is pain. We all have it and it all hurts. b) I need some distractions from my situation, so please give me some by telling me about your life. c) I feel more connected when you tell me what is happening in your world. And d) sometimes I’m tired of my illness and storyline. I want a distraction and your life is just the distraction I need.
4. DO offer assistance and support, but DON’T offer blanket assistance. When I am sick and overwhelmed, when all the houseplants are dying and I’m not sure when I will have the energy for my next shower and you ask “how can I help?” As much as I appreciate you wanting to help, I can’t be in charge of thinking of ways for you to help me. I just can’t. So think of ways that you can help and start offering that. Then make a nuisance of yourself by continuing to offer. I’m only half-kidding about this.
DO keep offering. For example, we have a friend who texts us every Friday that she’s going to the grocery store and asks what can she pick up for us. We can take her up on it every week or not for months, but every week, she offers. You can say, “I’m doing laundry today, leave any loads you have for me on the porch,” or “can I take the kids on Thursday evening?”
Be clear about what you want to give, as specific as you can, and require as little from the sick person as possible. For me, meals are almost always helpful, but I have some special dietary requests, so my friendship circle knows this information. They also know my energy is often too limited to visit when people bring food, so they leave it at the door and text me when it’s arrived. Think about how you can give and offer that as often as you can.
5. DON’T be so confused about how to support someone that you just fail to connect or reach out. Often my illness has meant that I’ve gone weeks without being on my phone. I know this has been hard for some of my friendships. I haven’t meant for it to be, but my lack of consistency has taken a toll on my relationships. However, if you care about me and I come to your mind, reach out and let me know. You can do that with a call, a text, an email, a card – whatever method works for you. No one is ever sorry to know she is being remembered by the friends whose lives are continuing while she is feeling crappy.
I hope this has given you some food for thought about ways you might offer comfort to someone living with a chronic illness. Often what we need most is just to not feel alone. Knowing others care about us when we are feeling low, isolated or at our worst can be just the boost we need. The fact that you are reading this article means someone matters enough to you to consider their needs and what you can do to bring them comfort and support. Thank you, on their behalf. I hope this has helped you think about ways you can continue to be a loving presence in their lives.
If you love someone with a chronic illness I challenge you, right now, to pick one of these tips and try to put it into action today. If you are already doing one or more of these, thank you and congratulations! Pick another and try it also. If you are someone who experiences chronic illness and you have the energy right now to reach for your phone, pick one or more friends who have supported you and send them a text thanking them for being in your life. Be good to yourself and to one another and remember: whether or not you are healthy, you can be well.