How to help an ailing friend

Don’t know what to say, or what to do? Experts suggest useful ways to help friends or family members as they endure medical troubles.
The best salve for a weary body? Time with friends and family. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You hear the devastating news that a friend or their family member is sick.

You want to help. But what should you do?

Whether it’s honing your listening abilities or braving your fear of the hospital, there are real steps you can take to help a friend during a health crisis.

It may help to remember some of these expert tips from Jared Skillings, PhD, a board-certified psychologist and chief of behavioral medicine at Spectrum Health, and the Rev. Nathaniel “Than” Johnson, manager of pastoral care and bereavement at Spectrum Health.

1. Recognize you can’t fix it.

Even though you might wish you could, you can’t.

“Many times, our problem-solving gets in the way of providing what is truly needed, and that is simply to sit with or be present with a person who is hurting,” Johnson said. “Imagine yourself in a hurting situation. When someone wants to show up and fix it, that is extremely insensitive. The problem is not something to be fixed, but a weight to share.”

2. Support them appropriately.

The most important thing is to offer support in a way that works for the patient.

“You have to think about supporting them in the way they need or want, not the way you need or want,” Dr. Skillings said. “We need to understand that the person we’re trying to connect with might feel supported in a different way than you do.”

Ask them what they need and don’t be afraid to be specific. Johnson warned against saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“That puts all the onus on the person who’s hurting to take the initiative,” Johnson said. “Rather, say, ‘I want to support, so I am going to give some suggestions and you tell me if this is needed or not needed.'”

There are endless examples of useful offers: walk their dog, pick up their kids from school, bring dinner or organize meals from several people, run errands.

Online helpers

Plenty of online resources are available to help you as you set out to help a friend during a medical crisis.

Mealtrain.com and foodtidings.com can help coordinate a meal schedule with others who want to provide assistance. You can set up a care schedule at signupgenius.com.

Spectrum Health has partnered with carepages.com to offer patients free websites where families can post updates, share photos and collect messages from friends and family.

Dr. Skillings said it can be difficult to find the right balance between offering help and being “pushy.”

“Sometimes people who are sick aren’t very good about accepting help,” he said. “They don’t want to put people out by asking for things. You don’t want to shove yourself onto someone, but at the same time if there’s a way everyone thinks they could use help, offer.

“You have to let the person make the decision,” he said.

And if you offer help, follow through—especially as time goes on, because a sick person’s support group might dwindle.

“If they ask for something really over the top, it doesn’t mean you have to agree to it, because you may not have the ability to,” Dr. Skillings said. “It’s OK to say you cannot do that, and then suggest what you can do.”

3. Avoid platitudes.

Johnson suggests we avoid saying things such as, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Even if you believe that, it’s not helpful in times of medical crisis. He wonders if we say things like that because we’re uncomfortable with the “messiness” of a painful situation.

“We have this inbred instinct to clean something up,” he said. “When you are dealing with a health crisis, there isn’t an easy solution, so you give a profound gift by just being present with someone, rather than trying to clean it up.”

Dr. Skillings said it’s also best to avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” Simply listen, rather than telling stories about yourself and what you’ve been through, even if you’re just trying to relate.

“It’s better to understand how they’re feeling and what’s happening to them if they want to talk about it,” he said. “Be empathetic and try to understand their perspective.”

4. Listen and pay attention.

If you pay attention, you can take cues about what someone needs or wants, Johnson said.

“People who are in a health crisis often say how alone they feel,” he said. “What they appreciate is the person who shows up who isn’t in a hurry to leave. You don’t have to talk. The gift of your physical presence and physical touch are profound gifts to offer to someone who is hurting.”

Be willing to listen without responding to everything your friend says—and let them talk when they’re ready to talk. And when they are ready, don’t be afraid to talk about their illness, Johnson said.

5. Expect ups and downs.

Depending on how they feel, your friend may want something one day but then something else the next. You should be prepared to adjust—and always be patient.

There will be ups and downs. One day your friend will need you and appreciate you, but the next they might angrily push you away.

“You can be there to deflect that for them,” Johnson said. “If someone needs to vent, let them go for it.”

Also, don’t assume your friend will behave the same as they might have before their illness, Dr. Skillings said.

“They may be a very outgoing person, but might not want visitors because they just feel awful,” he said.

6. Don’t be afraid of the hospital.

Always check first that a patient is accepting visitors. If the patient wants you to visit, don’t be afraid of the hospital.

“You don’t have to be expert on how the hospital works,” Dr. Skillings said. “The nursing staff are the experts. Your main responsibility is to go visit the person.”

Spectrum Health provides helpful information for visiting patients.

7. Recognize your gifts.

When you’re helping someone in a medical crisis, you’ll be part of a team of friends and family. Don’t be afraid to use your gifts and let others use theirs.

“You need to do what is in your natural, life-giving personality,” Johnson said. “If you have the gift of organization, you can set up a meal train or a schedule. Your gift might be to sit there and be silent with them. Each of us has a role to play, and it’s all important. They need a whole cadre of friends and family surrounding them.”

No illness or medical journey is the same as another, so there is no single way to provide the best support. Just be available and meet your friend or family member on their terms.

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