How to show support during a health crisis

A friend was told that she has Parkinson’s Disease. A co-worker just learned that he has cancer. Your old college roommate had a stillbirth.

How can you show your support for those people that you care about?

Here are my recommendations:

1. Something is always better than nothing. In this technological age, there are numerous options to demonstrate concern in a manner that’s easy and free. Sending your thoughts through an email, a comment on Facebook, a text message or a Tweet can go a long way. Your message doesn’t need to be long, just sincere.

Good options include: a) I’m thinking of you; b) You’re in my prayers; and c) I’m sorry, and I care.

2. Know your boundaries. There are people you call in a crisis, and there are people you don’t. Reaching out to one friend over another isn’t necessarily about which friend you’re closer to, but rather, about which friend can help you with that particular problem.

Realize that this isn’t a competition and try to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. We all have different skills, comfort levels and frames of reference. It’s okay to acknowledge that in a way that lets the person going through a difficult time know that you care.

One of the nicest texts I received during treatment was from a friend. She wrote:

I’ve been waiting to call you until I thought of the perfect thing to say, but I’m not good with these kinds of things. I just want you to know that I love you and am praying for you everyday.

Another friend clearly had a hard time talking to me about cancer. She was phenomenal at sending cards with sweet notes, though. Every two weeks for six months, I would pick up my mail and find another card from her. They always put a smile on my face.

3. Do your research. I find it beneficial to use the Internet to look up medical issues from reliable sources like the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. If I’m better informed about what issues my loved ones are dealing with, then I can be a better friend to them. Knowledge is power, and it also prevents us from saying something that we later regret or making incorrect assumptions.

For instance, a miscarriage is not the same as a stillbirth, and those two terms should not be used interchangeably. If you don’t know why, it might be worth educating yourself about it.

4. Be yourself. When my friend was battling leukemia, my group wasn’t sure what we should do. We didn’t want to do or say the wrong thing. My mentor commented:

She knows she’s dying. You always send cards and check in with your friends on the telephone. Why would you stop that now at a time when she might need it the most?

5. Don’t assume. All of us respond to a crisis differently. And, since no two people are the same, the same illness won’t manifest itself the same way in two different people. There are a variety of treatment options, and some people respond better or worse to one particular protocol than others.

The only way that you know how someone is doing is to ask:
a. How are you doing today?
b. What side effects are you experiencing this week?
c. How are you tolerating treatment?

If you have a relationship with the person in crisis, and you are taking the time to ask about his or her illness, keep your questions open-ended. Let your loved one tell you what he or she feels like sharing with you that day.

I’ve heard a lot of variations of the following statement recently:

How are you doing? I can tell that you’re feeling great because your hair is growing and you’re wearing makeup.

Me: I’m not really sure what to say to that.

I don’t mean to be rude, but if someone’s answering his or her own question, then he or she really doesn’t want to hear how I’m doing.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking about medical issues, that’s fine. Just don’t make assumptions or pass judgment.

6. Be respectful and think before you speak. Real examples of what not to say:

Husband to wife during her consultation about getting a double mastectomy: Well, your breasts were never your best feature anyway.

A neighbor to me while I was in treatment: My girlfriend didn’t even recognize you. You look so different.

Relative to a friend with severe IBS: I never let my tummy problems stop me. I just put an extra pair of underwear in my purse.

Colleague to a friend with Parkinson’s: You look good so it can’t be that bad.

If you say something and later regret what was said, apologize. We’re human, after all.

If you’d like to do more than just cards or comments, how can you be there for your loved ones during a health crisis? What can you do if you’re experiencing a health issue and don’t know how to communicate with those close to you? I’ll get to those posts in coming weeks.

What tips come to your mind, readers?

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