How to Help a Friend Who Is Ill
HAVE you ever been at a loss for words when talking to a friend who is seriously ill? Rest assured that you can meet this challenge. How? There are no hard-and-fast rules. Cultural differences may be involved. People’s personalities may also differ greatly. Thus, what may make one sick person feel better may not be helpful to another. And circumstances and feelings might vary considerably from one day to the next.
So the overriding need is for you to try to put yourself in the individual’s place and find out what he or she really wants and needs from you. How can you go about doing this? Here are a few suggestions that are based on Bible principles.
Be a Good Listener
“Every man must be swift about hearing, slow about speaking.”—JAMES 1:19.
▪ When visiting a friend who is ill, listen attentively and sympathetically. Do not rush to provide advice or feel that you always have to come up with a solution. In a hurry to express yourself, you might inadvertently blurt out something that could hurt. Your ill friend is not necessarily looking for answers but for someone who will listen with an open heart and mind.
Let your friend express himself freely. Do not cut him short, trivializing his condition with clichés. “I had fungal meningitis and ended up losing my eyesight,” says Emílio. * “Sometimes I feel really down, and friends try to comfort me by saying: ‘You are not the only one with problems. There are people who are worse off.’ However, little do they know that minimizing my condition is of no help to me. On the contrary, it has an adverse effect, making me despondent.”
Allow your friend to pour out his heart without fear of criticism. If he tells you that he is afraid, acknowledge his feelings rather than simply telling him not to be fearful. “When I am apprehensive about my condition and break down in tears, it does not mean that I don’t trust in God anymore,” says Eliana, who is battling cancer. Make an effort to see your friend as he is, not as you want him to be. Take into account that he may be vulnerable now and is not his usual self. Be patient. Listen—even if it means hearing the same things over and over again. (1 Kings 19:9, 10, 13, 14) He may feel the need to share with you what he is experiencing.
Be Empathetic and Considerate
“Rejoice with people who rejoice; weep with people who weep.”—ROMANS 12:15.
“All things . . . that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.”—MATTHEW 7:12.
▪ Put yourself in your friend’s shoes. If he is preparing for surgery, undergoing treatment, or waiting for test results, he may be tense and tend to be quite sensitive. Try to recognize this and adapt to his mood swings. This may not be the time to ask too many questions, especially personal ones.
“Allow patients to talk about their illness when they want to and at their own pace,” says Ana Katalifós, a clinical psychologist. “When they are willing to chat, talk with them on whatever subject they may choose. But when they are not in the mood for talking, you may just sit in silence, and a friendly hand to hold can do wonders. Or you may find that all they need is a shoulder to cry on.”
Respect your friend’s privacy. Author Rosanne Kalick, twice a cancer survivor, writes: “In taking your cues from the patient, assume that what is said to you is confidential. Unless you are asked to be the family spokesperson, don’t give out information. Ask the patient what he is willing to share.” Edson, a cancer survivor, says: “A friend spread the word that I had cancer and that I would not live very long. Mind you, I had just had surgery. I knew that I had cancer, but I was waiting for the results of the biopsy. There was no metastasis. But the harm was done. My wife was devastated by the thoughtless comments and questions from others.”
If your friend is weighing treatment options, do not be quick to say what you would do in his or her situation. Writer Lori Hope, a cancer survivor, says: “Before sending articles or news of any kind to a cancer patient or survivor, it’s best to ask whether they would like to receive such news. Otherwise, your well-meaning gesture could hurt your friend, and you might never know it.” Not everyone wants to be flooded with a huge amount of information about different kinds of medical treatments.
Even if you are a close friend, do not overstay your welcome. Your presence is very important, but your friend may not feel up to socializing with you. He may be tired and have little energy to talk or even to listen for very long. On the other hand, avoid giving the impression that you are in a hurry to leave. Your friend deserves to see how much you care.
Showing consideration involves using balance and good judgment. For example, before preparing a meal for a sick friend or even bringing him flowers, you might inquire about any allergies that he may have. If you are sick, perhaps with a cold, the loving thing would be to wait until you are well before you visit your friend.
“The tongue of the wise ones is a healing.”—PROVERBS 12:18.
“Let your utterance be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt.”—COLOSSIANS 4:6.
▪ If you keep a positive view of a friend who is ill, your words and actions will likely reveal it. Think of your friend as still being the same person and having the same qualities that made you feel drawn to him in the first place. Relate to him, not to his disease. If you talk to your friend as you would to a helpless victim, he may begin to see himself that way. Roberta, who has a rare genetic bone disease, says: “Treat me like a normal person. I am disabled, but I have my opinions and desires. Don’t look at me with an air of pity. Don’t talk to me as if I were stupid.”
Remember that it is not only what you say but how you say it that matters. Even your tone of voice can have an effect. Shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer, Ernesto received an international phone call from a friend, who said: “I can’t believe that you have cancer!” Ernesto recalls: “The intonation my friend gave to the ‘you’ and ‘cancer’ sent a chill down my spine.”
Author Lori Hope gives another example: “Asking ‘How are you?’ can mean many different things to a patient. Depending on the questioner’s tone of voice, body language, rapport, level of intimacy and, of course, timing, it can gently soothe a soul, inflict pain, or awaken a sleeping fear.”
A friend who is ill likely wants to feel cared for, understood, and respected. So assure the individual that he or she is very important to you and that you will be there to help. Rosemary, a brain-tumor patient, says: “What really encouraged me was to hear my friends say that they loved me and that they would be there for me no matter what.”—Proverbs 15:23; 25:11.
“Let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.”—1 JOHN 3:18.
▪ Needs will vary as your friend moves from diagnosis to treatment. But all during this time, he may need help. Rather than a general offer—“if you need anything, call me”—try to be specific. Offering to help with such daily activities as preparing meals, cleaning, washing, ironing, running errands, shopping, and driving your friend to and from the clinic or to the hospital for treatment are just a few of the practical ways to show that you care. Be dependable and punctual. Keep your word, and meet your commitments.—Matthew 5:37.
“Whatever we do, great or small, that bridges the gap between the patient’s worlds of illness and health will be helpful,” says author Rosanne Kalick. Sílvia, a two-time cancer survivor, agrees. “Having different friends drive me to another town daily for radiation was so relaxing and comforting! On the way, we talked about various subjects, and after the treatment, we always stopped at a coffee shop. This made me feel normal again.”
But do not assume that you know exactly what your friend needs. “Ask, ask, ask,” suggests Kalick. She adds: “In your desire to help, don’t take over. That can be counterproductive. If you let me do nothing, the message may be that I can do nothing. I need to feel competent. I need to feel that I am not a victim. Help me to do what I can.”
Your friend likely needs to feel capable. Adilson, who has AIDS, says: “When you are ill, you don’t want to be cast aside, as if you were good-for-nothing or totally incapable. You want to be of some help, even if it means doing minor tasks. It’s so good to feel that you are still capable of doing something! It gives you the incentive to go on living. I like for people to let me decide—and then respect my decisions. Being ill does not mean that we can’t go on fulfilling our function as father, mother, or whatever.”
“A true companion is loving all the time, and is a brother that is born for when there is distress.”—PROVERBS 17:17.
▪ If you are unable to visit your friend because of distance or some other circumstances, you can call him up for a friendly chat, write a note, or send an e-mail. What can you write about? Alan D. Wolfelt, a grief counselor, suggests: “Reminisce about some of the fun times you’ve shared. Promise you’ll write . . . again soon—and then follow through on that promise.”
You need not hold back from reaching out to a friend who is ill, fearing that you may say the wrong thing or make mistakes. In many cases, it is your presence that really counts. In her book, Lori Hope writes: “All of us say and do things that can be misconstrued or can in some way inadvertently hurt someone. That’s not the problem. The problem arises when you are so afraid of making a mistake that you stay away from someone who needs you.”
A friend who is seriously ill may need you now more than ever. Prove to be “a true companion.” Your efforts to help may not make his pain disappear, but you may well make a difficult situation more bearable for someone you love.
^ par. 9 Some names have been changed.