When someone you love falls ill, gets in an accident or receives a scary health diagnosis, it’s never easy. In fact, it may be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to face. Unfortunately, it’s also inevitable that we’ll all deal with this kind of situation in life.
“You may feel shocked, scared, concerned or uncertain on behalf of your loved one,” said Anne Moyer, an associate professor of psychology at Stony Brook University.
Whatever you’re feeling is okay. Any sort of health crisis signals a huge change in your life, and it’s frightening, said Melodie Winawer, a neurologist and neuroscientist at Columbia University.
“The way you think things would have been, or should be, is suddenly de-railed,” she said. “This sudden transformation is so difficult to process, on both sides.”
While there may not be a set formula for how to deal, there are some key points to keep in mind when providing support to a loved one. We spoke with people on both sides of the diagnosis ― doctors, psychologists and people who have been through their own health scares ― for their best advice on how you can help make a difficult time a little easier. Check out the dos and don’ts below:
Do: Say something.
“No matter what, it is better to say something than nothing,” said Ron Blake, a sexual assault survivor who has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. “Heck, even tell the person you aren’t sure what to say, but you just want to say something and let them know you are there for them. Silence is crushing.”
It’s okay if you’re not sure what to say, but do acknowledge the situation. Try authentic and empathetic statements, like “I’m not sure what to do to help, but I care about you,” or “I’m feeling upset too, but want to do my best to help,” Moyer suggested.
Don’t: Make it about yourself.
It’s human nature to focus on yourself, Winawer said. But try to suppress that natural inclination when speaking to a loved one dealing with a diagnosis. Take yourself out of the equation, and offer the other person the opportunity to explain how they feel ― without being imposing.
Say something like: “It’s hard for me to even imagine how you’re feeling. Do you want me to tell me about it?” or “I’ve never been in your position, but I’d love to try to understand what it’s like,” Winawer suggested.
Do: Take the “ask” off their plate.
It might be natural to offer to help by saying, “Let me know if you need anything at all.” However, that can put a person dealing with an illness in an awkward position of having to think of a way for you to assist them, said Nick Arquette, founder and CEO of Walk With Sally, a nonprofit that provides services to families impacted by cancer.
“When a friend or loved one is facing a serious health scare, one of the best ways to be truly supportive is to eliminate the burden of ‘making the ask,’” he said.
In other words, pitch in by taking an everyday task off their to-do list, like doing the laundry, making sure the bills are paid and mailed off or having dinner ready for the family. Or simply offer to go for a walk in the fresh air, so that he or she can open up and vent if need be.
Christina Pandapas, who was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer at age 46, agreed that simple gestures often go a long way.
“Meals for the family are tremendously helpful, so is offering to take their kids to events, school, or have them over for sleepovers,” she said. “Anything you can do to provide some fun and normalcy will ease stress for the whole family.”
Also, you can navigate around the “ask” by asking the person’s spouse how you may be able to help. “Not everyone is comfortable reaching out when they could use some help,” Pandapas said. “My husband was very adept at helping my friends navigate my ego.”
Don’t: Pretend to be a medical expert.
Even if you are a doctor, or have dealt with a similar condition, keep in mind that everyone’s experience is different.
“Most people dealing with a serious illness have a medical team,” Pandapas said. “They probably don’t need armchair treatment recommendations based on your second cousin’s brother’s experience.”
Nor do they want your overly optimistic, if well-intentioned, prognosis, stressed Rachel Soper Sanders, who suffers from chronic pain after a serious car accident. “Don’t tell the person it will be okay ― because in reality no one really knows if it will or not,” Sanders said.
Also, don’t assume they’re doing fine just because they look fine, she added. Many health conditions are invisible on the outside, so commenting on someone’s appearance can feel dismissive or hurtful.
Do: Give encouragement.
Although you might be wondering, try not to ask, “How are you doing?” as it can bring up an unwanted reminder, Pandapas said.
“I was always doing just fine until someone asked me that question, then I’d be holding back tears,” she said.
Instead, offer words of encouragement instead like, “You are amazing,” she suggested. If you do want to ask about their treatment or how they are feeling, try “What is the latest?”
Don’t: Take it personally if your attempts to talk are rebuffed.
Everyone will deal with their illness or condition differently. While most people will be relieved to talk about it, others may not be as willing to open up, Winawer noted.
Either way is okay, and don’t press people who don’t seem ready to talk about it. One of the best things you can say is, “Just tell me if you want me to leave or stop asking—you can’t offend me!” Winawer suggested. Also, try to be comfortable with silence: Don’t try to fill blank space with chatter about yourself, she said. Sitting in silence may just be what the other person needs.
Do: Provide a sense of normalcy.
“Understand that being there for someone with a serious health issue is a balancing act,” Pandapas said. “They may need support, but they may also be so tired of being a patient.”
Spending time with them doing normal activities ― watching TV shows, taking a yoga class, walking the dog ― and having conversations that don’t involve their condition can be a much-needed respite.
Sanders, who wasn’t able to leave her house due to her accident, said that her relationships and social life suffered. “It was so great to have someone simply hang out and spend time with me at home,” she recalled.
There’s often a flurry of activity and assistance immediately following a diagnosis or accident, Winawer said. But many people begin to check out after the first couple of days or weeks, despite the fact that the person continues to deal with their disease or diagnosis. Stick around in the long run, and try to send a text every so often or another way to show you care, like a gift certificate for a massage or manicure.
Pandapas said her friends continued to show their support throughout her recovery, which was very meaningful to her.
“They had an uncanny sense of timing. Just when I was tired and feeling down, a vase of flowers would appear on my doorstep, or one of them would send me a thoughtful text to check in,” she said. “Perhaps most importantly, they celebrated my strength, which helped me maintain it.”
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