It’s never easy to find out that someone you care about is sick. It can feel even harder when you desperately want to be there for them but don’t know-how. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I had a chat with my friends to let them know I “got it.” I wanted them to know how meaningful it was that they were on my team, but also to explain that things were bound to change a bit. From a three-time cancer survivor, here are six ways to support your friend going through an illness.
1. Just listen
You don’t have to talk. Just sit there, listen, and don’t offer advice unless you’re asked for it. You may handle things differently, and that’s okay. Just let your friend process everything in their own way, and don’t judge them for their decisions. There is an extreme sense of gratitude that comes from knowing someone is there to do nothing more than give support.
2. Help with the routine stuff
Bring over some meals. If your friend has kids, offer to take them to school. Drive them to doctor appointments and treatments, or just tag along. Check the mail. Help with the small stuff they may not be able to get around to dealing with. Remember that the little things can often be the biggest things of all. Your friend will remember this, too.
3. When they want to do it on their own, let them
Going through treatment for a serious illness is a very emotional journey, and there will be times when your friend will want to be alone to rest, reflect and process. This will most likely go against your instinct to be there, but it’s important to respect their wishes and try not to take it their need for solitude personally. When they are ready, they’ll let you know—don’t even mention it.
Remember that your friend is still living with this disease. Celebrate their life and accomplishments through the treatment journey. Celebrations don’t need to be ostentatious affairs; a movie night in or a heartfelt note is plenty. In addition, support your friend’s efforts if they’re involved with a charitable organization. Going through treatment, patients often see others doing so much for them and want to take opportunities to give back. Help your friend do so.
5. Treat them like the same person
There will be a grieving period and a time when anger is the dominant emotion. Don’t treat your friend as though they’re made of glass. They are the same person, and they will want to be treated as such. If you feel awkward, sad or scared, then say so. It’s okay, to be honest. Your friend will prefer it and will be grateful to you for remembering that their illness doesn’t define who they are.
Finally, laughter is truly one of the best medicines. Make jokes. If your friend is up for it and able to go out, go to see a comedy show. There are even oncologists who recommend their patients watch recordings of their favorite comedians. In addition to enjoying your presence, your friend will notice that it feels good to laugh. These precious moments will serve as a beautiful reminder that there is still humor and life beyond illness.