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Handling Illness With Poise

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am writing on Friends and Illness.  Breast cancer is a worthy cause and gets a lot of attention, one of the many ways that our bodies break down and betray us…illnesses that come and go, illnesses that are handed to us through our genetics, illnesses that come out of nowhere, illnesses resulting from poor decisions in the past, illnesses that may have no cure.

Common Misconceptions

In our society, illness is often seen as a weakness that is frowned upon…and attitudes of “try harder” are often undercurrents of interactions with family and friends who have a diagnosis.  This is especially true with mental health diagnoses, which are also seen as a sign of personal weakness or moral failing. (No wonder no one wants to admit being depressed…?)

Handling Illness With Poise

We are all fully capable of trampling another’s feelings, even if our words and actions are well-intentioned.  With that in mind, what is the best way to be a friend to someone who suffers with an illness?  Are there good ways to love without judging them? What if it’s a diagnosis you do not know a lot about and may not understand?

Recently during an interesting discussion with a group of women, I outlined a short “dos and don’ts” on how  to handle sad and difficult health situations with a friend.  Here’s what we came up with:

Good Options

  • A Typical Waiting Room

    Be Honest and Be Yourself .  These can be particularly difficult, but are usually the best options. Most of us can sense inauthenticity in others quiet easily.

  • Remember dates important to the individual – doctor visits, hearing test results
  • Remember there is grief and loss of many things in illness (e.g. things they cannot do anymore or do not have – book club, tennis lessons, hair or breasts, general health, plans for the future have changed)
  • Apologize for offensive or insensitive statements.
  • Stay Connected: Ask how things are going (e.g. side-effects to medications, an interaction with a crotchety nurse, adjusting to life with the diagnosis).
  • “I’m Thinking of You”- a quick email, text or note is a great way to let someone know you are thinking about them.

Can you think of other examples that you could add to the list? - maybe something creative or sweet a friend has done for you in the past (e.g. made a meal, run an errand, attended an appointment and held your hand).

The group also thought of some great Do Nots:

  •  “I know how you feel”.  The group noted this statement inappropriately changes the focus from the hurting person who was needing support.
  • Handle Spiritual Beliefs Carefully:

A common response in communities of faith is to quote Bible verses or make statements about God: “God has a purpose for this.” “God will heal you.” “Is there a sin in your life that you need to address that may be a part of this illness?”.  Each person in the group said these types of statements are much better left unsaid.  Spirituality has its place in a friendship and in illness, but timeliness is a great element to use when traversing this terrain.

  • Don’t Say Dumb Things:  encouraging a “get over it” or “try harder” attitude (e.g. these statements often include the words “just”, “should” or “need to” – as in: “You really need to get out!  It will help you get your mind off of it!” or “If you could just see the positive part of what is happening…”
  • Don’t disappear.  If you get squeamish or awkward around issues of health and mental health…work through your own issues so that you can 1) grow personally and 2) remain a friend to the friend in need.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  I remember when my daughter had major surgery as a newborn, a friend told me, “In God’s name she will not need this surgery.  She will be healed.”  This pretty much fulfilled all of the Do Nots listed above. Usually, a friend who is more realistic about what they can offer a situation ends up being much more comforting.
  • Don’t Flake Out: If you cannot attend an appointment or make a meal, do not offer that.  Offer what you can do – watch her children, be a taxi service, pray…giving in a way that you give best ends up being a wonderful blessing- it is authentic and heart-felt.
  • Don’t Go At It Alone.  A person struggling with an illness (of any kind) might be constantly in need.  If you are the only one helping, you will burn out.  Give what you can graciously, draw good boundaries, don’t carry unnecessary guilt.  Watch for feelings of irritation and anger, these are indicators that are worth paying attention to.  

Use Your Strengths…

Sometimes, there is often the expectation that “love” or “support” comes in the form of food and service.  My encouragement is to know your interests and your strengths and use those, even if they are different from the norm.  For instance, as a psychologist I have friends that will ask me questions about their depression or anxiety, how to handle situations with family members who struggle with an illness, their adjustment to aging parents, or any number of health related issues that affect their happiness and well-being. One of the best ways I serve friends is out of my natural passions in life - I answer questions about getting help and who to see, medications, options for a certain situation.  Another friend would be in a better place to make a fantastic mealoffer theological insight, help with childcare, etc.

Support Is VITAL.

One thing about illness is that there is a loneliness that many experience.  As a result, support is vital.  I may not be the one going to chemo treatments or taking certain medications, but I can do my best to help and encourage my friend who is.  Even if handling my friend’s experience with poise takes some practice and I make mistakes along the way.

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