Helping a Friend Whose Loved One Is Seriously Ill

How you help your friend and who your friend is are critical to consider.

Posted Aug 15, 2016

Have you ever been in a situation when a close friend calls or emails you and says that their child, spouse, or parent is seriously ill?  What do you do?  What do you say?  A flood of thoughts and feelings is cruising through your mind and body, and all you want to do is help your friend in their time of need. 

But how you help your friend is the critical issue to consider, and it all depends on who your friend is.  Is your friend the type of person who is action-oriented, one who likes to get things done as soon as possible and is always on top of things?  Or is your friend someone who likes to take their time in considering what they should do?  Is your friend very sensitive, quiet, or introverted, or is she/he a “tough-cookie,” “a take-charge type of person?”  Is she/he one who relies on others or is your friend very independent?  Does your friend like to anticipate events and always be prepared or does she/he prefer to take things as they come? 

If you truly want to help your friend, you have to bear in mind who your friend is psychologically and how they are reacting to their loved one’s illness.  Tailoring the way in which you help your friend based on who they are, and what their needs are, is far better than operating under a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Additionally, it’s important not to insert yourself into the equation—meaning “How would I like to be helped if this were me?" Unless your friend is just like you, this isn’t going to work.

There is no doubt that having a loved one who is very ill stimulates a number of stressors for family members, as well as negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, helplessness, and feeling overwhelmed.  In an effort to reduce the stressors and negative feelings, the individual should engage in energizing behavior and experience more positive emotions.  This is where you can come in to help your friend.

  • The most important act you can do is to listen to your friend and offer support. Encourage your friend to feel free to speak with you about their concerns, fears, needs, disappointments, and anything else they want to talk about.  Assure them in feeling comfortable talking to you by keeping your conversations private. 
  • Don’t believe that it’s necessary for you to always offer a solution to their problems.  Just being a supportive listener can have a significant impact on helping your friend. 
  • If your friend asks for advice, consider their current circumstances, who they are psychologically, and what they are going through now before you offer any suggestions. 
  • Don’t carry the belief that you must always be right in what you say or do; but, be careful not to offer suggestions that may induce more stress for your friend.
  • Give your time willingly and graciously. 

Focus on the positive as well as encourage your friend to take part in fun and energizing activities.  Your friend may not think it’s appropriate, at this time, for them to allow themselves to feel good or to participate in enjoyable activities.  You can remind them that this is exactly what they need to do if they want to be at their best in helping their loved one.   Some of the most effective coping styles for stress are

  • Remaining optimistic and feel supported by others
  • Redefining stressful events to make them more manageable
  • Looking to humor and comedy as releases for stress and pain

Others ways in which you can help your friend, which might be considered mundane, but are enormously helpful are:

  • Offering to run errands
  • Preparing some meals, babysitting the children, cleaning the house or yard
  • Remembering birthdays, anniversaries, sending notes just to say hello and that you are thinking of them and their loved ones
  • Researching the loved one’s illness so that you are better informed, for both yourself and your friend
  • Taking your friend on an outing where she/he can have a good time (shopping, movies, lunch, tennis game)
  • Keeping in touch, but also recognizing if you are overdoing it

Remember every person has their own way of dealing with stress.  The best gift you can give your friend is to be there for them.  Being there also includes being a set of eyes and ears that can monitor your friend’s well-being.  If you think their reactions (physical or emotional) to their loved one’s illness has placed them in need of professional help, encourage them to contact their doctor. 

To quote The Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”