How to Help a Friend Who's Sick
I’ve had fibromyalgia since I was 34. When I turned 50, I marked that milestone with a celebration FOR my friends ― the people who hold my hand figuratively (and yes, sometimes literally). Because their love, support and understanding have kept me alive.
When you have a chronic condition, friends are pivotal. Don’t have a clue how to help? Never fear; I’ve got 10 concrete suggestions right here:
1 / Keep in touch
A friend called me three times leaving messages ― none longer than 8 seconds. Still I couldn’t retrieve them. Then she texted ― “You okay??? love you!” The best messages let me know I am being thought of and that don’t require a response. My friends know that if I do not answer the phone, it’s because I can’t. They don’t take it personally or deem me rude. They become more concerned and reach out more and/or differently. Such light touches are lifelines.
2 / Give companionship
“Milkshakes or wine?” another friend texted. I was so thrilled as I’d been alone for days, too weak to get out at all, and she was offering to come over with some liquid nourishment! The wine was funny; she knew I wasn’t well enough for that. But she brought milkshakes and hamburgers, and we went to the roof and sat. Her thoughtfulness fed me like manna from heaven.
3 / Ask them to listen and support you
Yes, have them listen to you. In my third pain-relief bath of the day, I tried to read a book but couldn’t focus. Then a friend texted she had a dilemma and wanted to stop by. She came right in, with my blessing of course. I didn’t care that I was naked. (Actually, I never care if I am naked). The sense I was helping her lifted my spirits. The intimacy of the moment helped too. With her sitting on my toilet, I joked all we needed were cigarettes! Being an ear for another reminds me I do have value to offer, even if I can’t do much else. The distraction from my pain helps too.
4 / Validate their experience
People who suffer from an invisible illness need to know that others see their struggle and recognize the destruction is real. “How are you?” is often asked without really desiring an answer. Plus it’s demoralizing to have to say ― always ― “not good.” Since symptoms change with chronic illness, ask instead about specifics: “How’s your pain today?” or “How did you sleep?” That conveys both care and intimate knowledge about their particular experience.
5 / Bear witness
In the book of Job, his friends come to see him because they had heard about his troubles. From afar they see his suffering is so great that nothing can be said. They simply come and sit with him in silence for a week. David Whyte writes the “ultimate touchstone of friendship is witness … to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.” Bear witness with your friend. Be there. You don’t have to do or say anything. Just your presence can ameliorate a terrible time.
6 / Offer your clear mind to help
It’s a cruel catch-22 that when you are the most ill and suffering with brain fog, you need a patient advocate. So offer to be that for your friend. Help them to make sense of the quandary of invoices or to track insurance claims. Volunteer to research a drug they’ve been prescribed. Take them to the doctor’s and sit in to take notes. Create a chart of their medications. Offer to organize their medical history.
7 / Join them
Illness is a lonely thing. Often you’re struggling, and no one gets it. But the friend who texts, “we got this,” makes me feel less alone. My illness is mine, but by saying “we” instead of “you,” she conveyed she was in this with me. That expression of support dissipates the isolation. And that can be enough.
8 / Do a favor
I had a friend who came over unasked to shovel my snow-covered walk. I felt so bad I really didn’t want anyone to see me like that. I said I was fine, but he came anyway. The fact that my newspaper was outside still alerted him that I was really sick. I saw him when he was done, and I was so grateful, I wept. In DC, you can be fined if you don’t have your walk shoveled. Other friends have made dinner for me, or picked up groceries. Suggest a favor rather than asking, because often we don’t even know what we need. Or we need so much, we don’t know what to ask for first. Just offer anything specific. Be open to a counter suggestion. Then, of course, follow through.
9 / Understand silence and inaction
If something is not happening or if I’m not responsive, it’s because I can’t function. Presume that first. Next acknowledge the cause: “You must not be doing well today/this week/lately.” So much of my life is not ideal. I already feel bad about all the things not done. Don’t pile on. Instead recognize the constraints and ask if there is any way you can help them cross the “finish line” beyond them.
10 / Entertain with humor
The dark secret about being ill is how unbelievably boring it is. It’s a cliché to say so but as with most clichés there is truth: laughter is great medicine. Offer some activity that will amuse them. If you don’t know what will divert them, ask. I love playing charades. It’s hilarious when playing with my friends who speak other languages, and we try to act out “sounds like.” When you’re sick, the friends who make you laugh are the most valued.