A few weeks ago, I shared a health scare I had this summer during one of my Sunday morning chats (if you’d like to join in, click here). I was deeply moved by the responses I received. I’m used to being the one who gives out support and love to others. It’s sometimes hard for me to receive that, so it really touched me.
At the end, I asked what health related topics you wanted to know about, and today is the first of those posts. So stay tuned for the next few Tuesdays, when I’ll feature a new health stress related topic.
Today I’m kicking off the discussion with a topic that will hit you at one point of another in your life. It’s not a matter of if, but when.
Have you ever gotten the news that someone you care about is facing a life-threatening illness? Do you remember that moment when your stomach hit your toes and your world spun around you?
And then, once you sat down and caught your breath, you thought, “Gee, that’s how I feel. That’s not even what he must be feeling. I can’t imagine that. I feel so helpless. What can I do?”
You can feel totally helpless as to what to do.
Here’s your guide to know where to start and what you shouldn’t do when a loved one is sick.
Where to Start When a Loved One is Sick
- Take a moment for yourself. There’s a phrase that you can’t help someone else until you are standing on higher ground. No, this isn’t about being on a high horse. But in this situation, if you’re still dealing with the shock of the situation yourself, if you were to try to comfort them, you could reverse roles. They may be the one comforting you, instead of you offering support to them. So take a moment for yourself.
- Ask yourself, “What can I bring to the table?” Your answer to this will vary, depending on your relationship to the person. If they are your significant other, best friend, or close family member, your role will be different than if they are a co-worker or neighbor. Regardless of how you know them, bring your strengths to the table. If you’re good at organizing things, take charge of planning a meal calendar, getting someone to sit with them during treatments or at home, or scheduling people to help out in their yard. If you’re great at listening, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Now this next part is really important, so take note: No skill that you possess is too small or insignificant. The gift of laughter is a blessing at a time like this. The ability to just sit and let them experience quiet is a gift, too. Get clear on what you have to offer.
- Reach out gently. Sometimes the urgency of it all can entice us to go into reactive mode. While that may be necessary at times, it can amp up the emotion and stress of it all. For a first step, try sending a text, private Facebook message, or calling someone who is “in the know” about what is needed. Remember: reaching out to them in a one-on-one way, with a specific offer, can make it easy for them to accept your help. Adding a comment to a long string of “Let me know what I can do’s” in a Facebook thread can seem empty and like something you’re just supposed to say.
- Reach out again. You may not hear anything back from them. There’s a lot going on, and even just replying back to a message can be overwhelming or even just plain forgotten in a flurry of emotion. Waiting a few days and then trying again can let them know that you are sincere, again, making it easier for them to accept your offer. Keep in mind how hard it may be for you to accept help. The same is more than likely true for them, too.
What Not to Do When a Loved One is Sick
This is an important section. What you do and say can actually be more hurtful than what you accidentally omit. Even with the best of intentions at heart, things feel very different when you are on the other side.
- Don’t offer up stories of someone else who had the same thing. Everyone is different. Hearing how “strong” they were, or how “hard” their experience was isn’t exactly helpful. Even when you’re trying to share something uplifting, like how good the odds are- none of that takes away just how scary it feels to them in that moment.
- Don’t tell them that everything is going to be OK. Not only does it trivialize their emotions, but there isn’t an insurance policy on that. Only promise what you, personally, can deliver on. No matter how much you mean it, everything is not OK in that moment. And there will be many more such moments. Put away the crystal ball.
- Be cautious in bringing up religion or God’s wishes. This is a sticky topic. There are moments when these conversations are very much wanted and needed. But this is a trial of faith for everyone involved. Often, believers feel that God has forsaken them. Be sensitive of that. This is their journey. If you are a believer and the person going through this isn’t a believer, keep in mind that both of you will handle this in your own ways. Do what helps you during this time, and allow them that same privilege.
- Give them space. There are times when they need to be around others, and times when they need some alone time. There is a lot going through their mind, not only at the beginning, but at each new step along the way. If you aren’t sure if they want to be alone or want to talk or even just want to sit there together in silence, just ask them. They’ll let you know.
- Don’t have expectations of what they will feel or do, or in what order it will happen. Every major change in life comes with a degree of grieving what is lost (yes, even good changes have a bit of this). Just because you felt one way at this stage, or you knew what someone thought right about now, it doesn’t mean they are going through those emotions in the same order. Many people are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages that someone who is dying goes through. Her work has been applied to those who are grieving or who are going through any hard change. One key point to remember is that not everyone goes through all five stages, you may go through some of them more than once, and there is no set order or time frame. (By the way, those five stages are: shock/denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance.)
What to Do When a Loved One is Sick
So now that we’ve covered what well-meaning wishes can somehow work against you, here are some concrete action steps that you can make.
- Give them a hug. Never underestimate the power of human touch. More than any words, this simple gesture lets people know they aren’t alone and that you care. If you are at a loss for words, give them another hug. You can never have too many hugs during a time like this.
- Listen. You don’t have to know what to say. Often, not saying anything gives them a chance to talk and to process through their feelings. That is more powerful than you may realize.
- Be there. Don’t assume that everyone else is taking care of things or helping. Your presence means more than you know, even if it happens to be on a day when they are tired. There really is strength in numbers.
- Ask them what they need, and ask them what they don’t need. You’d be amazed at how much fried chicken gets brought over, while the weeds grow in the untended garden. Sometimes massive amounts of effort are put in one area, while others are completely forgotten. (And don’t be surprised when they reply that they just need a visit or for you to sit and enjoy the porch swing with them.)
- Be yourself. It’s amazing how many everyday phrases we say that have the words, “killed” or “died” in them. At a time like this, it can feel like a bomb was dropped in a room. During any other time, no one would pay any attention to something like that. If it does feel awkward, own up to it. That will help to change the topic and relieve any tension. But often, it goes unnoticed. Just be yourself. If you bring humor to situations the other 364 days of the year, it’s OK to bring the laughs now, too. They may be counting on you for that.
Difficult situations bring out emotions in everyone. When someone you care about is sick, the most important things are to listen, ask, and give lots of hugs. If that’s all you remember from this post, then you’re on the right path.