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Responding to a serious illness guide

When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, it’s often difficult to know what to do or say. In many cases, people do nothing because they don’t know how to respond, but inaction is the worst action. It can be interpreted as not caring.

So, here are a few suggestions depending upon the closeness of your relationship: (family or close friend acts are noted with an asterisk)

  • Send a note or card of encouragement (nothing too cheery or solemn, but show caring, and write a personal note when you sign it)
  • Make a special treat and deliver it in person (drop it off at the door unless the person indicates a desire to talk)
  • Make positive statements such as “you have a good doctor”
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings (if they say they are scared, agree that you would also be, but add a positive statement as above)
  • *Provide helpful information, but don’t push treatments, etc. (resist talking about others who have had the same malady)
  • If the person has decided to let a disease run its course, offer assistance and support (don’t say, “if there’s anything I can do,” but offer trips to the grocery store, relief for caregivers, child or pet sitting, or deliver prepared food)
  • *If the person is hospitalized, offer to pick up mail or check on the house (you can also offer to help them pay bills and take care of routine business if no one else is closer to them and can do that)
  • Offer to make phone calls or provide a phone card so that the person or caregiver can make long distance calls on a land line phone
  • Respect the person’s decision regarding his/her own health
  • *Visit or make phone calls periodically (the length of time and gesture truly depend upon the closeness of your relationship, but be careful not to intrude and realize that time may be valuable to others, or the person may be too tired for an extended visit)
  • If you are a person of faith, then pray. If the ailing person is a person of faith, you can even offer to pray with them
  • If the person is terminal, don't be afraid to cry (it shows that you will miss the person when they are gone, and may allow the patient an opportunity to release emotion and cry, too, but try to end any visit on a less sorrowful note even if it is making a light comment about emotions such as "oh great, now I've made you cry, too!")
  • Offer a gentle touch in greeting or parting

Nothing can equal a show of concern and caring, whether that is through an act or other expression of your feelings. Don’t let fear of not knowing what to say or do keep you from making a positive difference in someone’s life. Caring for your fellowman, no matter the circumstances, makes this world a better place.