by Amanda Romaniello, LPC
So you’ve just found out that someone you love has been diagnosed with a serious, chronic illness, and you’re at a loss. You don’t quite know what to say or do. You’re afraid you might say the wrong thing, upset them terribly and make their awful situation even more painful. We all want to be helpful and supportive, but we’re fearful that we might make things worse. We might say too much. We might not say enough.
As a therapist for a program providing support for critical illness and bereavement, I am often asked for advice on how to cope with this very situation.
The truth is, you already know what to do. Odds are, you’ve already shared stressful moments with this person; you simply need to be the same person you were then, and do the same things you’ve already done. The situation may seem more serious, but support, comfort and caring always feel the same.
Here are a few more suggestions to keep in mind when helping a loved one cope with their diagnosis:
- GIVE THEM TIME: The life that they once had is now changed based on their illness and treatment regimen. This is a huge adjustment, and acceptance does not come quickly for people in that situation. My clients have often said that they don’t want to hear “Everything is going to be okay” or “You’re going to be fine.” They want to be able to feel what they feel without being judged for it. An initial response of anger or sadness is normal, and often passes with time. As a loving friend, you should respect their process and even ride the emotional waves with them. Allowing them to talk openly and honestly about the way they feel is a great way to be supportive.
- REMEMBER THEY HAVEN’T CHANGED: They may not feel as well, and may not be physically able to do all the things they did before, but they are still the same person they were before their diagnosis. I have heard it echoed over and over again that the individuals coping with cancer or critical illness just want to be treated like everyone else. They want to be viewed as a person and not someone defined by a disease. Yes, they are sick and, yes, they may have a long battle ahead, but they are well aware of this already. They don’t need you to point it out. They just want you do the same things with them that you always have — laugh with them, cry with them, but, most importantly, just BE WITH THEM!
- EDUCATE YOURSELF: Once you know their specific diagnosis, learn about the illness on your own. It’s a good chance you are not the only person they’ve told, or will tell, and they may not want to repeat the details over and over again. If they want to talk about their illness or treatment, follow their lead and let them talk. But don’t push upon them your own need to learn more about their condition. You may think you’re being solicitous and showing interest, but until they choose to engage that conversation, you’re more likely being invasive.
- BE THERE: A major concern for a lot of my clients has been that their friends won’t be able to handle their illness, that they will be there in the beginning but as soon as it gets difficult, the friends will slowly stop calling or coming to visit. Don’t be that way! Be a constant figure in their lives, with phone calls and emails and text messages. Send cards or even flowers. Let them know you’re thinking about them. Don’t tell yourself you simply don’t have time to visit — there are many effective ways to communicate your love and affection even from afar. Also, don’t cut them out of the activities that you always shared. Include them as much as possible — let them decide if they can participate or not. Of course, on the other side of this, don’t overdo it. You’ll know if you’re pushing too hard.
- BE YOURSELF: If you remember nothing else, remember this. Be whom you have always been with this person. So many things in their lives have changed, or are about to change, make sure that you are not one of them. Be the funny, serious, sarcastic, critical, optimistic — insert any character trait that applies here — person you have always been. They will appreciate the constancy in their changing landscape and love you even more for it.
Amanda Romaniello, LPC, is the Family Centers Coordinator of Clinical Services for Darien and New Canaan, CT. Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.