Six Ways to Support A Sick Friend

Science has proven friends can be an important part of the recovery process.

Posted Oct 04, 2016

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We have all been there. We have a friend who is struggling with a health issue. We want to do something meaningful, but we don’t know what to do. Here is a list of simple suggestions that women who have gone through illness say were extremely meaningful:

1. Start with Creature Comforts Being sick is about feeling bad physically, so anything you can do to fill your friend’s environment with things that are pleasing, make her feel pretty, or provide comfort will be a hit. Soft blankets, comfy pajamas, pretty slippers, a scented neck warmer, a satin pillowcase, or a pretty bed jacket to wear for visitors are all sure to make her feel pampered. Also consider a lap desk, a back scratcher, candles, lotions, hand warmers, eye drops, lip balm, a blooming plant, or a bird feeder to make her space a more pleasing place.

2. “Calgon Take Me Away”  Transport her mind. Music can calm or cheer. Think spa music, dance music, whatever was popular when she was in high school, as well as guided meditations or audio books. Perhaps she would enjoy it if you read to her. Maybe she would like to page through old photo collections or a yearbook together. Little distractions are also good, like crosswords, sudokus, magazines, craft kits, art supplies, and decks of cards or puzzles. And don’t forget the myriad of on-line games that you can play together like Scrabble with Friends.

3. Road Trip! Depending on your friend’s mobility, you can help her jump the fence. A mani/pedi, a hair appointment, a yoga class, a foot or body massage, or a smoothie run can be a huge lift. If those are too taxing, plan to soak up the beauty of a view: a garden, a church, a waterfall, the ocean, a glade of blooming trees, or an art gallery. Go for an afternoon glass of wine or a decadent chocolate dessert at her favorite restaurant. Be conscious to schedule the trip at a time of day when she has enough energy and when the destination isn’t busy so that the trip will feel relaxing and unhurried.

4. Time and Touch  Your friend may have begun to feel like a human pincushion or a medical specimen. If so, she may long for the feel of a loving hand. Brushing her hair, painting her nails, rubbing her feet, hugging her, or just holding her hand may provide comfort beyond measure. Bringing fresh news and commentary, no matter how seemingly unimportant, will let her feel part of the world beyond the hospital or her bedroom. Invariably you will bring laughter which is often much better than any painkiller. Being there to give a caregiver a break can also mean the world to your friend, and the caregiver. It is always thoughtful to confirm that she feels up for the visit before you show up. 

5. Let’s Get Practical  When someone is sick, all eyes are on the patient and their care. That usually means that other routine responsibilities, like the dishes, the laundry, the yard, and the trash are not on the main radar screen. Running a vacuum, cleaning the bathroom, or watering the plants can be a big help.  A call that you are heading to the grocery store and would love to pick up needed items or a treat means a lot. Walking the dog or taking the kids to the park may matter more to your friend than they do to the pet or the children. Sometimes your relationship is close enough that taking the initiative to do things that clearly need to be done is comfortable, but other times the best approach is to say, “I have a couple of hours, what can I do that would be helpful?”

6. Create a Box of Treasures and Pleasures One way to cheer your friend when you aren’t physically there is to create a box of small, wrapped goodies. You can start it and urge others to add to it. They can be silly things like an etch-a-sketch, silly putty, a magic trick, joke teeth, a Rubik’s cube, a water gun, interspersed with soaps, teas, coffee mugs, cute reading glasses, a pretty scarf or head wrap, nail polish, earrings, a book on friendship, a framed photo, or an herbal eye pillow. When your friend is having a down moment and no one is around, she can open a little present. It isn’t about the gift; it is just a way to say I love you even when you can’t be there in person. This is a great idea for a friend who is far away.

More than what you bring or do for her, the central thing is that the person feels emotionally supported and connected to you, by your written words in cards or texts or emails or by phone calls or visits. And perhaps more important than what you say to her, is your ability to hear her. Listening is a wonderful gift that she will need throughout her road to recovery. 

If you are the organizing type and can rally a group around her for support that is another especially important gift. You will be surprised how many people will jump to help if you give them a task and a calendar to sign up on, and it can be done simply using one of many websites.

When my best friend was finishing her breast cancer treatment, we planned a trip to the beach for her to recuperate, leaving directly from her last chemotherapy treatment. I showed up with a bag of surprises: a huge, ridiculous sun hat, pink plastic sunglasses, one of those beach cover-ups that makes it look like you have a bodacious body in a bikini, a fan to create the faux sea breeze, a fruity drink in a margarita glass, a shallow bucket of sand for her to put her feet in, beach music, sea shells, and sunscreen. All the nurses and neighboring patients laughed with the "beach babe." While I wanted to make the last session a little less serious, what I really wanted was for her to see a glimpse of how much I love her--and any sweet, well-intentioned gesture above will do that.