Many ways to help those who are ill

By  Lisa Petsche
  • April 30, 2007
When someone you know has been diagnosed with a serious illness, you may want to reach out to him or her but feel unsure of what to say or do. This uncertainty can keep you away at the time when your help is needed most. The following are some ways to show you care.

Emotional Support

Don't agonize over what to say. Keep it simple and heartfelt – for example,  "I'm here for you. " Don't be afraid to share your emotions. Remember, too, that a touch of the hand, a pat on the shoulder or a hug can often convey support and caring better than words.

Educate yourself about the disease to understand the challenges your friend faces.

Allow him or her to express emotions freely. Serious illness affects people physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. But although there may be similarities, no two people experience it the same way. Feelings may include shock, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, sadness, loneliness and hopelessness.

Recognize and accept that people cope with illness in different ways. Some may alter priorities and lifestyle while others may choose to carry on as usual. Some may use humour as a coping mechanism while others may become introspective or more spiritual. Don't take bad moods or uncharacteristic behaviour personally.

Spiritual Support

Offer to pray with the person if you think they would be receptive. Otherwise, let them know you are praying for them. Request that they be included in the special intentions for healing of the sick during the prayers of the faithful at Mass.

If the person is connected with a faith community,  look into available social ministries, such as a prayer chain, eucharistic ministry to the homebound, telephone support, friendly visiting and transportation (to church or doctor visits, or to pick up needed items).

If you attend the same church, provide a copy of the parish bulletin; otherwise, deliver a diocesan newspaper or denominational magazine, a CD containing hymns or an inspirational book.

Maintaining the Relationship

Keep in mind  that you may have to be the one who makes most of the effort. Call ahead to determine the best time to visit. Be sensitive to signs of fatigue that signal you should  conclude  the visit.

Treat your friend the way you always have. Don't hesitate to smile or tell a joke. Be yourself.

Listen non-judgmentally, demonstrate compassion and don't give unsolicited advice. Instead, provide words of support and encouragement.

Encourage your friend to take one day at a time and to trust that he or she will be able to cope with whatever lies ahead.

Don't underestimate the pain – physical, emotional and spiritual – your friend  may be  experiencing and don't discourage tears or urge him or her to  "be strong. " Don't withhold your own tears, either – they're a sign that you care.

Take cues from your friend as to how he or she wishes to deal with the illness; don't make assumptions.

Encourage him or her to practise self-care, including proper nutrition, exercise (if appropriate), getting adequate  rest and avoiding unnecessary stress. Also encourage your friend to keep medical appointments.

Help a female friend feel good about her appearance. Offer to style her hair or do her nails, or bring her an attractive new accessory, such as a scarf or costume jewellery. Bring a surprise gift, such as flowers or a favourite movie, magazine or food treat.

Invite your friend on an outing, if feasible, keeping in mind any energy limitations. If the person declines visits, telephone or send cards or notes to show support.

Instrumental Help

Assist in practical ways to help your friend concentrate on treatment and ensure needed rest. Walk the dog, run errands, perform household chores or drive him or her to appointments. Offer to get information about community resources that may be of assistance.

Final thoughts

Remember that emotional support and time are the two most valuable gifts you can give a friend who is grappling with a serious health problem.

People who are ill don't expect friends to provide answers to difficult questions such as,  "Why did this happen to me? " or to take away their pain.

What they do want and need is the comfort of knowing they're not alone.

(Petsche is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register.)

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