When a Best Friend has
a Serious Illness

Concern and Compassion

When you learn that a friend has a serious illness, it puts everyone off balance.  As news spreads, it’s common to think that rushing in with the “How can I help?” or “What can I do?” questions are helpful.  But a friend in need of balance may feel overwhelmed with those type requests.

Etiquette calls us to listen first with an open heart and then acknowledge the need of others.  Even if that need requires us to do nothing.

Initial Responses

Those who have suffered with a serious illness report that when others cry or bemoan the situation, the person who is sick feels obligated to care for their friend or family member.  This is the reverse of the caring actions that friend could be taking.  

Persons who are sick don’t want to feel sorry for themselves but, being ill, they don’t want the job of comforting others either.

“I’m so sorry,” is a reflexive response that news of an illness seems to call forth.  While understandable, this response may be experienced as discouraging.  Your friend will no doubt experience challenges ahead in fighting their illness and will appreciate encouraging statements.  

  • “Oh man, I wish you hadn’t had this news!  Count on me to be here for you.” 
  • “My friend, I can’t imagine how you must feel.”
  • “John, this is tough news to hear, but I’m sure it’s even tougher news to share.” 
  • “When can we meet up?”
  • “Whatever needs arise, you can count on me.  I’m here for you.”

Learning and dealing with diagnosed illness can be crushing.  Your calmness in the initial stage is something your friend will count on as the future unfolds.

Helpful Kindnesses During a Serious Illness

If you plan on being your friend’s encourager or caregiver in some capacity, realize that it’s often difficult for people to suddenly have others asking what they need or what can be done for them.  Take the lead and think about what pro-active help you can offer.

  • “Callie, I’m going to the grocery store in a few minutes.  What items are on your list?  I’ll bring them to you.”
  • “What day this week can I pick up your favorite meal and drop it off?”
  • “What items can I get for you while I’m at the pharmacy?”

It can be helpful for someone with a serious illness to have their strengths recognized.  You may have overheard your friend being kind to a nurse or deferring to get on an elevator first or you may notice his attempts to stay upbeat and positive.  Acknowledge and reinforce their strength and positivity.

  • “I so admire your braveness and courage.”
  • Send surprise, unmentioned, cards in the mail.
  • Bring an unexpected treat to her home when she returns from the hospital.

Another kindness you might show in caring for your close friend may involve continuing the times the two of you have jested and enjoyed things in life together. 

  • “Just checking in to see what’s happening and who you’ve been picking on today.”
  • “Hey, Mary, here is a picture puzzle featuring still life on a lily-padded pond.  Reminds me of the times we were into studying turtles and frogs.”
  • “John, you’re stuck in isolation for now, so I’m ordering you some crosswords today.  What comes to mind that I shouldn’t order?”
  • “Bill, of course you don’t have to write thank you notes right away for all of those gifts you’ve received. Wait until you’re better.”

The Right Words at the Right Time

We don’t always know what to say to someone experiencing a serious illness.  And it’s sometimes difficult not to keep saying the same thing.  Monitor any potential repetitiveness, but when the occasion arises, it never hurts to express what is in your heart.

  • “You have to know this, Bill:  You are in my thoughts twenty times a day!”
  • “Chris, I love you.”
  • “I can’t help but notice that the things you’re having to give up on aren’t stopping you from doing the things you can, and with gusto!”

Accepting help is hard for all of us.  Imagining what it might be like to be for your friend dealing with a serious illness will help you step aside from awkwardness.  When your friend knows that it’s important to you to just be there for her, even when there may be times you don’t talk at all, you can rest assured that you’re both doing the best you can. 

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