When a friend is ill

Have you ever heard anyone say? ‘You need to be strong for your children’ OR ‘Everything happens for a reason’?

Have you ever uttered a seemingly positive statement like; ‘I know women who have had breast cancer and they are all doing well?’ OR My cousin underwent a masectomy and she’s climbing mountains now?’

Is this supposed to be helpful? Please take a few moments to think about it. A cancer patient once told me that she found comments like these rather insulting and that they meant nothing to her. Telling a friend; ‘You look great,’ can have the effect of making her stop telling you how she really feels. The same applies to hidden illnesses like diabetes or mental illness; unfortunately there are far too many to mention. How about a straight, honest comment like; ‘Please tell me if you prefer to be alone and when you want company, call me. Then, you will be able to tell me what I can bring for you and when to leave’  In addition to honesty, you can express empathy and availability. If I were ill, I think that this is what I might like to hear:

 ‘ ‘I’m bringing dinner,’ ‘You must be desperate for some peace and quiet. I’ll take your children out for the day on Saturday. How’s that?’ “Please tell me how I can help you,’ ‘I’m here if you want to talk. If not, I’m going now,’ If you don’t tell me how to help, it’s hard for me and I really mean my offer.’ It is also not a bad idea to talk about other things besides your friend’s illness.

Spending time in a hospital for an extended periods of time is like being in another world, one where one tends to forget that others are leading ordinary lives out there. So, joke around with your friend and her family and behave toward her the same way you always have and indulge her when she gets a bit edgy. After all, she wants to be out there in the real world once again as much as anyone else. If you get an opportunity, emphasize her talents and skills without overdoing it of course. She needs to feel valued.

It’s a bad idea to say; I understand what you are going through,’ because you don’t. Even if you have been in a similar situation as every person has a different version of the same illness and reacts in an individual manner. If the patient is not a particularly good friend, but you want to show your support and visit her, make sure that you know the facts of her illness and situation. I have been present when a visitor said; ‘I am so glad that your cancer was caught early.’ It wasn’t and she died not long after that fiasco of a visit.

Try not to treat your friend like a child. Positive thinking helps patients endure tests and treatments but these are not cures. so, it’s better not to imply that negative thinking caused or exacerbated her illness. The last thing that a patient needs is to blame herself. While lying in a hospital bed for a long time, one tends to dwell on what was said during visiting hours.

In conclusion, I have thought about what I would like to hear if I were in the same situation and all I can come up with is: ‘Try not to say to others what you would not have them say to you.’



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