5 Ways to Support Someone Dealing with a Health Crisis

By Locke Hughes |

Showing you care might look different than you think. Follow these dos and don'ts to help make a difficult time a little bit easier.

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It's unsettling to receive a scary health diagnosis. What can be just as unsettling: learning that a family member or friend received one.

Whether you feel shocked, frightened, overwhelmed, or a combination of all three, know your reaction isn't right or wrong. It's normal to feel uncertain for your loved one and to have questions-some of which you may not want to know the answer to.

Everyone deals with a health crisis differently, but there are steps you can take to help your loved one-and yourself-get through a difficult time with grace. We asked experts and people who have been through their own health scares for their best advice on how to provide support. Here are five key points to keep in mind.

Do: Remember It’s About Them, Not You

A common reaction after learning about a loved one’s health condition is to immediately say, “It’s going to be okay” or “You’re a fighter,” or tell a story about someone they know who overcame a similar situation, says Karen Whitehead, M.S., L.C.S.W., a Georgia-based social worker who works with caregivers and adults with chronic illnesses.

But that's not actually helpful. "These responses are often a way of managing our own discomfort and fears about what's happening to our loved one," Whitehead says. They may help you process the news, but they're not exactly what your loved one wants or needs to hear.

He or she is trying to make sense of what they’ve learned about their health and life, and it takes a while for this news to sink in, explains Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360 in Dallas.

Ask yourself, "Do they need space, or do they need companionship?" Gilliland suggests. "I see people make the mistake of thinking the person needs them to do something when, in reality, you are struggling and it's a burden to the other person." Be mindful of what they need, not what you need.

SilverSneakers community member Chris Linley echoed this sentiment on our Facebook page. When asked about the best and worst ways people showed their support in the aftermath of a health crisis, Linley wrote, "Best? My friend listened to how I was feeling and showed her support. Worst? A different friend told me that she knew exactly how I was feeling and how to fix it, as it was 'no big deal.' Guess who is still my friend?"

Don’t: Disappear

Never be afraid to talk to your loved one. The aftermath of a health crisis is often a time when many so-called friends disappear, says Sherrie Dunlevy, author of How Can I Help? Your Go-to Guide for Helping Loved Ones Through Life’s Difficulties.

Dunlevy knows this all too well, as she and her husband lost many friends after the death of their son.

"Sometimes, a terminal illness like cancer scares people away," Dunlevy explains. "Some flee because it is simply too painful to face the possibility that someone near and dear is dying; others may feel uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, the phone calls and visits just stop."

If any of these excuses cross your mind, remember: "You can't catch cancer, mental illness, or most other ailments," Dunlevy says. "Plus, you'll handle the situation much better if you focus on their pain and what they are facing, rather than your feelings about it."

If you're not sure exactly what to say, that's okay. "Be honest and tell them, 'I don't know what to say, but I'm here for you,'" Dunlevy says. "Often, people don't even want to talk about their situation-they just crave normal conversation."

Besides talking, it's just as important to listen-without interruption or judgment. "You may find that you don't have to say anything at all," Dunlevy says.

Do: Think Small

You don't always have to make a grand gesture. Just being there as someone they can "do normal life with" may be the best thing you can do, Gilliland says. In other words, give them a break from thinking about their health or treating them differently-and just be a friend.

Support can be subtle, Whitehead adds. "Visiting to play a quick game of cards, watch a football game, or have a cup of tea can be a welcome normal activity when life has become chaotic."

Consider these real-life examples from the SilverSneakers Facebook community:

"I had cancer, and my adult sons were wonderful," says Melissa Eckelbarger. "One came over every football night, and we watched together. My daughter-in-law decorated the house for Christmas. My youngest cleaned. And my husband was a saint with helping. Our church brought in meals. Some … just sat and visited. One person made scarves to cover my bald head and brought a relaxing music CD."

"I had a kidney biopsy and had to lie still on my back with a large pad on the side for six hours," says Ellen Dunn King. "I asked my talkative son to call me, and he took care of several hours. So bored, so grateful!"

Cathy Tait shared a simple joke that made her feel better before a biopsy: "My husband told me he married me for who I was, not for my breasts. Greatest thing I ever heard or felt."

See more comments from the SilverSneakers Facebook community here.

Don’t: Ask What You Can Do. Instead, Do What You Can Do

"I'm betting almost everyone who's reading this has uttered the following phrase: 'If you need anything, just let me know,'" Dunlevy says. "And for the most part, these words are uttered with the best intentions."

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But here’s the problem: “Most people simply don’t know what they need at this time, and they are not likely to pick up the phone and ask for help,” she explains.

Instead of giving your loved one the responsibility of figuring out what they need and telling you, offer or let them know what you will do, Whitehead suggests. For example, say, "I'll drop dinner by on Thursday. Would you prefer vegetable stew or chicken?" Or "I'd love to take you to book club this week. What time can I pick you up?"

More ways to show support:

  • Offer to drive them to doctor’s appointments, lunch, shopping, or other everyday activities.
  • Let them know you’ll be at the mall, grocery store, or running errands, and see what they might like you to pick up for them.
  • Stop in to do a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher, or walk their dog—with no expectation of conversation.

Just be sure to consider their particular preferences when bringing food, Whitehead says. Many illnesses require specialized diets, or people may choose to eat differently. For example, picking up some fruits or vegetables for snacking may be more welcome than a dish with lots of butter and cheese.

Do: Take Care of Yourself Too

"'Compassion fatigue' is real," Gilliland says. "As anyone who has cared for an ill family member will tell you, you need to have help and support yourself."

A few needs to prioritize: “Guard your quality and amount of sleep, eat nourishing foods, and make sure you move and stay active,” he says. Plus, take advantage of any resources and strategies that can help you as a caregiver.

"Self-care is critical to staying strong when you're caring for someone with a health issue," Whitehead says. Beyond tending to yourself physically, think about nourishing yourself on all fronts. Ask what you may be missing in terms of physical, emotional, spiritual, professional, intellectual, and social needs, she says.

Finally, even with the best self-care, fear of losing someone close to you or fear of your own mortality can be all-consuming, Whitehead says. "If you're feeling overwhelmed, seek help from a qualified mental health clinician who can give you the space you need to talk about those feelings and develop coping strategies," she says. "This will allow you to be fully present for your loved one."

If you’re not sure how to find the support you need, talk to your primary care physician. He or she can likely connect you with the right people.

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