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Tips: What To Say When A Friend Is Ill
Dr. Dale V. Atkins, February 2005

For many of us, being supportive to a friend who is seriously ill can send us into a tailspin. Not just because we are sad about their health but because we don't know what to say. We feel awkward and are afraid of saying something "wrong." So, fearful that we will say or do something inappropriate, we chose to say or do nothing. But where does this leave our friend? Without the knowledge or comfort of our support. If we are distant, seemingly uninterested, do not we reach out, likely the person will feel isolated and uncared for. We need to discover ways we can be available to people. Words can help but often, a meaningful action can make a tremendous difference. They and their condition are always changing and often they do not know what is ahead of them.

Most people want to know what to say to them. Do you try to cheer them up? Reassure them that things will be all right? Pray with them? Tell them about your own experiences with something similar? Ask if they would like to be in touch with someone you know who had the same illness? Help them to see that they may grow even stronger through experiencing the illness? Should you ask them for details of their condition? Is it okay to ask questions? How can you be a good listener? Is it better to ignore the whole matter and act as if nothing serious has happened?

The most important thing to remember when someone you care about is seriously ill is that they are the ones in pain (physical and/or emotional), and that your attention should be focused on what they need. "What could I do that would make you feel better?" is an excellent question to ask, although it may be a hard one for your friend or relative to answer (after all, most of us are taught not to burden others with our problems). It may surprise you to learn that, most often, what they need is simply someone to listen sympathetically, thereby sharing the burden of their suffering.

The person who is ill must not lose their dignity. Illness carries with it a whole gamut of feelings: fear, anger, disappointment, betrayal, hopelessness, sadness, grief, perhaps guilt or even shame. People who are ill feel dependent and often resentful about that dependence. When you are conscious of these issues, you will be a sensitive friend. If the sick person feels alone, they will likely feel more despondent. Healing the body is linked with healing the soul and it is the soul that also suffers when people do not treat them as viable, important parts of the family or community. Someone who can be a loving bystander to all of the feelings a person who is ill has will be greatly appreciated. If you're curious about details of their situation, ask them if they feel like talking about it, rather than proceeding with twenty questions.

Your role is not to make the person feel better (although your presence is likely to do that) or do something to relieve their suffering. For the person who is ill, the emotional pain is often worse than the physical pain (which can be awful too) and feeling isolated or ostracized (which is different from wanting to be alone) can make an illness worse.

It requires strength and wisdom to enter someone's space and not have an agenda. You may find that your visit is one where you sit and hold the person's hand. There are talking cures and silence cures. Being with someone can be extremely healing. Knowing when to talk and what to say…that is the key. Sending a heartfelt card (or series of cards) often lifts a person's spirits and knows they are not forgotten.

Many people shy away from anything religious or spiritual yet when someone is ill, they often pray or ask for strength from a higher being. Your friend may appreciate praying with you but may not ask. Sharing an inspirational poem or passage or prayer can be extremely soothing, as can a tape or CD of relaxing music or chimes or nature sounds. For some people, "books on tape" can save their long days because reading or holding a book may just be too taxing.

Allow yourself to be available to the desire of the person who is ill. Be open. When someone is not well, the hours can drag but long visits with other people can be draining. Short, more frequent visits are often more welcome and establish a comfort zone so the person can say, "I'm not up to a visit but would love for you to drop off the chicken if you don't mind."

Visiting a person in the hospital or someone ill and homebound for a short period of time can lift their spirits (but not if they have to "entertain" you or "fix themselves up in anticipation of your visit" which uses up much of their needed, and often, diminished energy.

Physical and emotional touch can bring great comfort. Whenever it seems appropriate, give a hug or extend a hand, touch someone's arm. For many people who are ill, they wonder whose body they are in! They feel unattractive and wonder if they are still desirable. By touching someone (if it is appropriate) you can help a person to feel acceptable.

So many people who are ill, particularly if they live alone, can use help with picking up groceries at the market and will respond positively to: "I'm going to the market for milk and eggs, can I pick some up for you? What else would you like? (or medicine at the pharmacy, or dry cleaning, or take the dog to the groomer). Rather than saying, "Call me if there is anything I can do for you" which puts the onus on the person who is ill and that is what you don't want to do, try "I'm coming by your house and would like to drop off the groceries after I go to COSTCO." Bringing over a "hot pink" nail polish and all the fixings for a manicure or pedicure that you lovingly give to your friend can also lift her spirits and create an "easy" atmosphere for talking and listening.

You can loving offer not to come in for a visit, but to water plants outdoors or bring in the mail, clean their house, drive them to an appointment, walk their dog, or deliver dinner for their family, What do these thing do? They all help to give the person who is ill, a feeling of being cared for and about and less overwhelmed. Offering to take someone's child to a fun outing (as a distraction and also to make the child feel as if the are still important and can still have fun) can do wonders for the person who is ill, because so many of their thoughts and worries are not just about their own well-being but of those around them.

As long as you remain present, patient and extend unconditional support, offer yourself as a non-judgmental listener, you will likely do well. Always sit down when you visit a person who is ill. Because they are feeling poorly, you do not want to emphasize the difference in "status" (you are well, they are not) by standing "over" them. Try to be at eye-level.

If you want to talk, be sure the person who is ill wants to talk. Their treatment regimen or just the recovery process may be very taxing and exhausting. Or, they may not feel like talking. It doesn't matter that you drove an hour and only have a short time to stay. This is about what they need. It is important that you make the person feel it is okay that even thought you traveled to see them, that if they are tired, you do not have to visit. (this is the time you may leave or help them with something like clean up the kitchen, play with the kids, water the plants.

Listen with sensitivity. Do your best not to interrupt and try not to anticipate what the person is about to say. This is not a time to finish their sentences. Listen with your body, your face, your heart.

Share your own experience but do not dwell on it. Use it only to "level the playing field" and let this person know that you, too, have experienced a time in your life when you felt scared or threatened or incapacitated…and what you found helpful.

If you find it difficult to talk about specific issues tell them you are having a hard time speaking about it. Describe your feelings because it is helpful for the person to know that you, too, find it difficult.

Do not change the subject. Follow the lead of the person who is ill. He or she may go into areas that are difficult to hear but do your best to stay present. You are helping this person on their journey. Allow the person to express their feelings, including anger and bitterness, as they make their way through their own process.

Be careful with advice. Most people who are ill generally do not want advice. They want to talk things out to come to their own decisions. Sometimes, giving advice inhibits conversation.

What To Do:
Know The Boundaries
Take Cues From The Person
Listen Sensitively
Respect Their Wishes

Put Other Person First
Be Responsive To Their Desires
Preserve Their Dignity
Offer Little Things To Be Helpful
Help Them To Feel "Connected"

What Not To Do:
Impose Yourself Or Your Ideas
Talk Too Much
Stay Too Long
Offer Unsolicited Advice
Tell Them You Know Exactly How They Feel
Change The Subject

The contribution you can make is avoiding the mistake of ignoring the situation, glossing over or changing the subject. Few things in life disappoint us more than when someone we care about "isn't there for us" when we really need them. And there are few times in life when we need our friends more than when we're sick.

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