Six Ways to Help Your Chronically Ill Friend
It can be hard to see a friend struggling. Here are a few things you can do to help.
This article is for the able-bodied folks. If you have a friend who has a chronic illness that’s impacting their life, and you care enough about what to do to google the above phrase and find this post, then congratulations, you are already 95% ahead of most people. The truth is, if that’s the case, chances are you’re already helping your friend more than you even realize. But I’d like to share a few thoughts, from a Chronic Icon’s perspective.
(All of these suggestions also apply to parents caring for kiddoes with chronic conditions. Trust me, your friends with special-needs kids need your support.)
If you love your friend and they’re struggling, you may feel helpless. I went to a fantastic talk led by meditation experts Jon Kabat-Zinn and Will Kabat-Zinn a couple of years ago. Jon and Will opened up the zoom meeting to questions, and a woman asked how she could help her friend with a brain injury. She said, “I don’t know what to do. I feel so helpless.”
Jon said, “Is that true? Do you really not know any way to help her? Or do you not know any way to fix her?" After a pause, Jon continued, “I’m guessing you already help her in lots of ways. Do you check in on her? Do you offer to help with things she can’t do? Do you ask how she’s feeling?”
The woman answered, “Yes, of course.”
Jon said, “Then you already know how to help. What you’re really saying is that helping isn’t enough. That you want to take away her suffering. And unfortunately, you can’t. You can only help. You can’t fix.”
This was a real “a-ha” moment for me, as I recognized the ways that I sometimes try to fix my own friends’ problems. It’s just not possible. But there are a thousand ways to help, and if you are a person who feels love and consideration for others, you already know some of these ways. The thing to remember is that we—people with illness—would love your support, but we don’t expect you to fix anything. Trust me that anything you do will feel like a mountain of love to us. I mean this. I have friends with babies who just don’t have the time to really show up for me, but just shooting me a text asking how I am—just taking 10 minutes to text with me while the baby is napping—is huge. It makes me feel connected to the world, it makes me feel loved, it makes me feel like I matter and I shouldn’t give up.
(And to my Chronic Icons: make sure you're reaching out to your friends with children, whether or not they've got health issues. Parenting is hard, and it's important we don't get so bogged down in our own problems that we forget that able-bodied folks struggle too!)
Here are a few ideas for helping your chronically ill friend when they’re suffering:
Tip #1 - Ask how they are!
This seems simple, and yet only the most special people in the world seem able to do it. People are so afraid of illness and of suffering. Be brave. Check in with your friend. I can’t stress this enough. I have heard people talk about “giving people their space.” People who are suffering need to know they’re loved. Reach out.
And don’t just say, “Thinking of you,” or “Miss you,” or “Hope you have a great day!” or “Hope you’re feeling better!” These comments all close the door on the sick person being able to share what’s really going on. If someone doesn’t ask me what’s going on, and instead just tells me they hope I’m feeling great, then I feel I’ve been silenced and can’t express that I’m actually feeling like a dog turd left out in the sun.
My favorite one (in a bad wayl) is when people talk to me for a minute about non-health related things, and then say, “Well, you sound really healthy!” And that’s it. I never know what to say. Thank you for the compliment on my vocal work? I just don’t know. Did you expect me to answer the phone coughing? I don’t have a lung problem. And I’m a grown-up who can act normal when I pick up the phone, regardless of what’s going on.
So ask how your friend is doing, and give them space to answer honestly. Do not cheer them up. Let them feel awful or hopeful or despairing or excited or whatever it is. Be a safe space for them to be honest.
Again, this can be over text if that’s all you can do. If their energy level is at zero, texting might actually be preferable for them, so never feel bad for keeping the communication simple.
Tip #2 - Drop something off at their home, or order them something online.
Here are a few awesome gifts I got during a recent prolonged recovery:
One of my friends dropped off a preserved rose—the kind that lasts for months. It still gives me such a feeling of joy and love, every time I see it.
Another friend dropped off a deck of playing cards, a box of gingerbread cake mix, and a pile of design mags. This was a top-notch gift. I absolutely slaughtered my husband in gin rummy with those cards, which gave me confidence (maybe even arrogance); the cake mix took no energy and was delicious and fun; and the design mags were great because when I was too sick to read, I could look at pictures.
My bestie shipped me all her used gossip mags.
These gifts meant everything to me at the time, and they cost very little for my friends in terms of both money and effort.
You can send anything you want with just a few clicks these days, so this won’t be too taxing. Is there a book that made you smile, or made you feel more resilient? My bestie once sent me Rachel Dratch’s memoir during a tough time, and I loved it. I’ve sent Pema Chodron books to people, and Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance. Even if people don’t end up liking the book, they’ll like that you thought of them.
Tip #3 - If you’ve got a little time, ask how you can help.
If you’re too busy, don’t give up! Just go back to step one. But if you’ve got the time for a grocery run or a pharmacy run, offer it up. I’ve actually never said yes to this, because delivery is a thing that exists. But man, do I appreciate the offer.
Tip #4 - Send a card.
When things have been extra-rough I've gotten a few real, hold-them-in-your-hands paper cards, and it meant so much. I put them up on the mantle and they reminded me that I mattered to people.
There are some great ones on Etsy.
Tip #5 - Message them funny memes and cute videos.
Bonus points for a video featuring Fritz and Fiona, the baby hippos from the Cincinnati Zoo. Fritz and Fiona may be capable of curing chronic illness. For reals. They’re just that special.
Tip #6 - If you have the time, reach out and ask if they have the energy for a more personal check-in on a video app or even IRL.
When I have the energy to actually speak to my friends, either on FaceTime or in real life, my endorphins genuinely lessen my symptoms. This is not something I’m making up. According to the Cleveland Clinic, endorphins are hormones that are:
“released during pleasurable activities. Your brain releases endorphins to block the nerve cells that receive pain signals. This essentially turns off your pain.”
In fact, the word “endorphin” is a combination of the word “endogenous,” which means in the body, and “morphine,” an opiate pain reliever. That means that when you check in with your friend face-to-face, you’re basically getting them high on friendship. Sign me up!
Just do something
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. Pretending your friend isn’t going through anything, or pretending they don’t exist until they're better, will alter the friendship. Please understand that you don’t just pick up where you left off the next time they’re feeling well enough to come back to work or re-join the world. If you don’t show up for them when things are rough, you can’t expect the friendship to mean much to them. All it takes is a text.
And if you’re a person who doesn’t want to ask your sick or suffering friend how they’re doing, and doesn’t want to give them the space to be honest, then I highly recommend you take a look at your own discomfort. There’s some ableism hiding away in there. What’s freaking you out so much? Is it the reminder that all our bodies will fall apart eventually, even your own? That’s scary for sure, but it’s something to work out by talking to your therapist, not by ignoring your friend.