I Know You Mean Well, But…
If you have a friend or acquaintance (or even just happen to meet someone in a random place) who is chronically ill, you probably have given them some sort of advice. You see that they are suffering with pain or fatigue and have been for a long time. Perhaps they are struggling with what seems to you to be vague or multiple diagnoses or constant medications changes. Your friend is no longer able to do the things that they used to love to do and you fear that they are depressed, or that they have given up “the fight.” All of these things are difficult to watch, and you feel a deep sadness as if you are losing your loved one. You want to prevent this. You react. You are saying what you feel is helpful.
In my experience, friends of sick people react in a few different ways to the sick. They may constantly give advice and try to “help.” They may reject the illness outright as well as the person who is ill. They may support the person completely. Sometimes an acquaintance or stranger feels the need to “help.” I am at a loss as to why there is such a need to give advice to a stranger. Perhaps fear of illness? I am guessing it is fear.
If you are in a situation in which you would like to give some advice to a sick person, please read through these common advice mistakes.
“Have you tried…”
This is the most common advice given to any person suffering with any illness, from cancer to the flu. Just know that if a person is chronically ill, that asking them if they have tried some supplement, exercise, remedy, etc. — that this is like asking Neil deGrasse Tyson if he has ever been to an observatory. Of course, many things have been tried (!) and most people who are very ill are in a fragile equilibrium and need to keep a very stable regime in order to maintain the quality of life they have achieved. The more acute (cancer for example) the illness, the more important this is. So, yes, they have tried, and no, they don’t want you to forward that email, website, etc.
Instead, Maybe you can say something like: “I am sorry to hear you are having a difficult time/feeling badly/having a bad day/under the weather, it must be so frustrating. What kinds of things are you doing for fun/distraction? Have you seen any good movies lately?” Just have a normal conversation with your friend. But DO let them know you care. “I worry/think/care about you so much/a lot.”
“You should see my doctor…” or “have you had a second opinion?”
This is a very presumptuous statement. Do not assume that a sick person has chosen their physician unwisely. Even if it is not your intention, it is how this question sounds. Your friend has probably been through many doctors, and probably has a few specialists caring for her. Alternately, your friend could be frustrated with her doctor and this could be a sore spot. A better way to introduce the subject if you are really concerned — “I’ll bet you spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. It must be draining. How are you doing with that?” Listen.
“How many doctors?” “I hope they don’t expect tips at the end of the year!” “I am so sorry you have to go through this.” “Do you need a ride sometimes? I could take you out to coffee after, so you have something to look forward to after!”
“You need to stop/start eating…”
This is just like the “Have you tried” category, but rather this is shamingadvice. Again, people suffering from an illness already have enough shame from perhaps not being able to do what they feel they should be doing or not working enough or even having gotten ill in the first place! Blaming their diet is victim blaming. Now, if you are a dietician, and you work in a hospital and you see a diabetic patient eating a candy-floss-wrapped-ice-cream-sandwich, go ahead! Otherwise, just don’t comment on your loved one’s food choices.
If you are very concerned — Say, for instance, your friend is losing a great deal of weight, or seems to be having a difficult time eating, ask delicately: “It seems like you are having a hard time with regular food, I’m sorry to see you suffering. It must be difficult.” Listen.
If you are at a function that revolves around food (what get-together doesn’t?) offer your friend some ginger (or any type of) tea. Don’t offer food, they will deal with it themselves. Never force food on a sick person or say “you need to eat!”
If your friend DOES need help with preparing meals, by all means, help them with planning, shopping, bring them prepared meals, etc.
You’ll feel better if you exercise.”
AAAck!.No. See “shaming” above. You don’t know what you are talking about. I want to leave it at that, but in the spirit of helping you, dear friend, I will tell you that many chronically ill people have regular physical therapy, or are on a limited exercise regimen. Some of us feel worse after exercise, much worse, as if we were beat up by a rabid grizzly bear. However, the shame and sadness of not being able to do those things that we used to do — like walk across the room without getting dizzy, haunts us daily.
If you are really concerned that your loved one is too sedentary or never leaves the house, you can approach the subject carefully — “It must be so frustrating not to be able to do all of the things you used to do. Are you able to go for a walk with me at all?” Offer to go at their pace or drive them to a nice park with benches in the warm weather or a mall so you can sit frequently. “I worry about you/think about you a lot. What types of things are you able to do?” Listen
“My friend had that [illness]and they were cured by …OR Dr.Oz/Weil/XYZ Guru says…”
I am lumping “my friend was cured by” and “the guru says” because they really are both the same thing: Eye-rollers; Alternative medicine, energy healers, spiritual councilors, faith healers, hypnotists, the Secret, diet fads, magical herbs, and on and on. What they are selling is magical thinkingdressed as religious/spiritual enlightenment (hysteria). Over the years, I have met hundreds of people who want to try to convince very sick people that only THEY, the magical guru /healer/Dr. can lead the ill to health through some type of diet, spirituality, yoga, healing practice, whatever. The sick person can be manipulated into about anything and out of a lot of money. However, the constant is this: the sick person hasn’t done anything wrong. Most of the time, like with me, the ailing were happy and productive people, and then they just fell ill. Not because they hate their father nor have alien viruses or they eat the wrong things or can’t touch their toes or meditate. Sickness is part of life. Hope is great, but in the end, we must put that faith and hope into ourselves and open our hearts and minds to seeing what we can do right now today (sick or not), and give it our all (sometimes it doesn’t look like much but that’s okay!!). And, when we are overwhelmed or too fatigued, we must give our bodies and souls the love and respect to rest.
For a person to say to a sick person (and especially a religious believer) that he can heal them because Jesus or God or whatever he believes said he could can be dangerous. (Personally, I think it’s kind of mean!) Now, the sick person can take the blame internally again. If they are not “healed” then Jesus /God/the Universe must not love them! It couldn’t be the healer’s fault?! So now we have a sick person with a spiritual crisis, guilt, shame and no hope. If God/the Universe, etc. has forsaken you, why even go back to a doctor?
People, don’t recommend “healers.” Don’t recommend “miracles” of any sort. There is no such thing. It is so important to be a friend to your friend. Listen and support your loved one. Do NOT abandon them.
Don’t give up!!* Or Snap out of it!
We are not in boot camp! Being sick is not like being on the “Biggest Loser.” If is cut out 300 calories a meal and get to the gym every day, I won’t reach my goal! I have had people tell me that I have “given up” because I believe my doctor’s diagnosis that there is no cure for my illness and I just need to “keep searching.” Because I am a good patient (I have had several opinions even from the Mayo clinic, yes they all agree) my own family will not believe that I am really ill and thinks I am a hypochondriac, because there is no possible way that I could be sick for 15 years.
Believe your loved ones when they tell you that they haven’t given up on life. We may have accepted that we have an illness that it is part of our lives. Being a compliant patient is essential to a more productive life. We cannot “snap out of” our illnesses. This is not a mind-over-matter issue. Believe me, we all wish it were. Attitude is important, yes! A good attitude will help a sick person deal with the pain, fatigue and depression that too often comes with chronic and severe illness, but it will not cure it.
Please, do not tell your loved ones that being happier, doing what they love, snapping out of it or any mind tricks will cure them. This is unrealistic, disrespectful and cruel.
What you can do and say is anything that helps promote an upbeat positive attitude! Send funny texts, links and nice emails as often as possible. Even one emoji is a nice reminder to a sick person that there is a person out there that cares. If you see a movie you like, let them know. Many sick people don’t work much or at all. People in chemo treatment or recovering from surgery have pain and nausea and need to be distracted, and media helps, but reading is difficult. Podcasts, TV shows and movies are great.
* Alternately, If your loved one tells you that they “can’t go on”, or that they want to “end it all,” or talk at all about wanting to die — PLEASE take them seriously. Living with chronic illness is co-morbid to depression and suicide. Listen to them, stay with them, and let their family know to support them. This is when you may insist upon care. Here is the Suicide Prevention number in the US: 1–800–273–8255. If you are a family member, make sure your loved one gets into therapy and psychiatric care, if it comes to that. Unfortunately, sometimes you need to start with a Primary care doctor, but she will already have doctors who know her well and it will not be a problem to get a referral. Listen, Listen Listen.
Here is what you CAN do:
If you don’t have in-person time for your friend, but are thinking of them, send a text or email periodically. Let them know: “Hi, I am thinking about you, here is a funny thing to brighten your day.” Do not be offended if you do not hear back for a while. Sick people sometimes avoid contact and sleep a lot. Any up-beat communication will be welcome, but please also ask how they are and let them know you mean it and are willing to listen. Make an appointment to phone. Even a 2 minute phone call can be uplifting.
When you do have time, offer to meet for a short activity, like coffee. Make it close to their home and be prepared to pick them up and be very flexible. They may not feel well when it comes to the day, be open to a re-schedule. Be open to a spontaneous date. If they are not okay to go out right now, ask “can I come in and make you a pot of tea? We could just chat for a few minutes.” They may say no, so you can say to your friend something like, “anytime you have a good energy day want to take advantage of it, just let me know — see if I am available.” Sometimes sick people have a sudden good morning/afternoon and nowhere to go.
If you have a lot of expendable cash, send a cleaning crew, or food service delivery. Pay for a cable streaming service (like Hulu or Netflix) for a few months or Audible.
Send an in-home massage if appropriate (ask first) or in-spa massage and go with, or offer to drive.
Drive them to doctor appointments. You don’t have to stay with them — go have a cup of coffee and do some shopping then pick them up.
Offer to pick up groceries or pharmacy items. This can be on your way home from work or on a weekend and doesn’t need to include a long visit. If you are going out anyway, maybe you can help if you live or work close.
If you have an Amazon Prime membership and they do not, offer to have items delivered, they can pay you with Google pay, or another system.
Here is how to go about it:
Try not to ask “let me know if there is anything you need.” Tell them:
“I’m at the store; I am picking up some tea for you, if there is anything else you need, just text it to me.”
“How are you feeling today, are you up for coffee? I will pick you up. Not today? Call me in the week when you have some energy, I would love to chat, if you are up for it we can go out or just sit on the porch.”
“Text me your Dr. Appointment schedule for the month. I have some flexibility; let me see which ones I can take you to.”
“I am ordering my cleaning supplies from Amazon, do you need anything? I can have it sent to your home, you can just pay me back.”
Gifts that are always welcome:
Thank you for reading. Also, do not forget! Support people need help, too! Be a good friend and try to listen more than speak. Try to ask more than advise. That’s all.