Talking about a serious illness and what the future may hold is never easy, especially when you’re talking about it with someone you care for. You might not know what to say, but then, they might not know what to say to you, either! It’s easy to forget that the person you care about is still the same person they were before the illness.
Some people will want to talk, and some will not; it can change from day to day but however your visit goes, all you really need to do is listen with respect and empathy. Take the lead from your friend about how the conversation should go and talk to them in a way that you think will most put them at ease and provide support in a way that is comfortable for both of you. It’s all right to admit that you don’t know what to say—you don’t have to say or do anything to make things better—just be there as fully as you can.
You may find that your visit is one where you sit and hold the person’s hand. Touch is a great way to offer consolation. People long to be treated as people and not as their diseases. A simple gesture of touching their hands, looking into their eyes, or just breathing gently with them in the same rhythm will offer so much comfort and consolation.
When thinking about ways you can help, think about your own strengths and abilities and then offer to do something specific such as
- Driving to appointments, make phone calls or walk the dog. Offer to take over the school carpool responsibilities.
- Organize meal deliveries through your faith community.
- Mow the lawn or assist with other household chores.
- Spend time with your friend to give family caregivers some time for themselves.
- Help your friend continue to be involved in favorite activities and hobbies—if they have to miss an important event such as a child’s recital or ball game you can videotape it.
Some other things to keep in mind is instead of long visits that can tire your friend out, short, more frequent visits are often more welcome. This will also let your friend admit that they may not be up for a visit without feeling pressured.
They say laughter is the best medicine, so think of some funny stories or jokes you have shared over time or know the person will appreciate. Studies have shown the therapeutic effects of laughter so even if someone is very ill or dying, don’t be afraid to use appropriate humor.
Talk with your friend or family member about their feelings and concerns and remember that there is no right or wrong way to feel. Support their decisions about care, even when those decisions differ from your own. It’s not about you, but about them. Remember you are not there to convince them of your own beliefs or preach to them about dying. Respect your friend or family member’s beliefs and listen to why decisions were made. By being a non-judgmental listener, extending unconditional support, and remaining present and patient during your visits can be extremely healing to your friend as well as yourself.
Lastly, watching someone you love go through a serious illness can be extremely stressful and can take its toll on you so be sure that you find someone to talk to. If your friend is dying, it’s normal for you to experience symptoms of grief so it’s important that you have a support system for you in place as you’re trying to act as support for someone else. Talk to a good friend who you know you can count on, or seek out a therapist to help you through.