August 2, 2023
4 Minutes

How You Can Be There for Me. Sincerely, Your Friend.

Maya Devincenzi Dil

“I’ve sent you this, because, as you know, I am living with a serious illness. Sometimes it feels like I’m surrounded by eggshells, and the people closest to me are walking on them. Maybe you’ve stopped reaching out, or feel awkward when you do. And I get it. I don’t expect everyone to know how to support me, so I’m sharing this with you to give you a better idea. It’s a guide from Pal on how to be there for a friend with a serious illness (aka me). Hope it helps.”

So, someone you love is living with a serious illness.

Unlike saying your pleases and thank you’s or holding a knife and fork correctly, illness etiquette isn’t something you’re taught young. Or ever, for that matter. This seems strange since illness is a normal part of life – which means, at some point, you’re bound to be visiting a seriously ill person, whether that’s a friend, family member, or someone from your community.

Nerves can hold us back from reaching out, scheduling a visit, and trying to be there for our friends. Stressing over saying the wrong thing, getting upset or not being able to help? All these worries make for a pretty jittery guest. But there’s no need to be. If you’re reaching out and showing up, you’re already on the right track. Let me help you with the next steps.

So, you’re visiting your friend. You’ve phoned beforehand to check when’s a good time, and whipped up a batch of flapjacks to bring along. How’s your mood? Are you anxious or agitated? Take a moment to breathe in a few deep breaths.

Once you’ve arrived, go for a greeting like: “It’s so good to see you” rather than: “you look great!”. But don’t worry too much about having the perfect words of comfort up your sleeve. Your presence is the present. So, be present. Giving your undivided attention is a great way to show that you care, so put off answering texts until you leave.

From then on, there isn’t a set way for things to go. Spending quality time together could look like a gossip about your mutual friends, or watching a few episodes of a their favorite TV show.

Just make sure to stay authentic. That means, don’t skirt around the elephant in the room – acknowledge their illness, their current well-being and reassure them that they can count on you for support.

Then, be ready to listen. Like, really listen. Let your friend take the lead, ask open questions, and don’t avoid deep conversations. Let them know, “if you need to vent, I’m all ears”. That way, whether you end up having a deep dive into their emotions or just a chat about their week, the offer of emotional support is on the table.

When talking, a good rule of thumb is to think before chipping in. Ask yourself: what am I trying to achieve with this? So, the story about your friend of a friend who had exactly the same cancer? Probably not gonna make your friend feel better. Similarly, if a ‘comforting’ phrase like “if anyone can get through this it’s you” or “god doesn’t give us what we can’t handle” starts bubbling up inside you, simmer down. This kind of always-look-on-the-bright-side attitude is called toxic positivity, and it does a lot more harm than good, no matter how well-intended. It leaves no space for negativity and invalidates someones’ experience. Worst of all, it means that your friend won’t feel safe to be honest about their feelings.

Another common blunder is offering unsolicited advice. Although you want to help, this comes across the same as telling a friend they aren’t raising their kids right, or commenting on someones’ diet. So, herbal remedies, experimental treatments, or that book “the truth about cancer”? Keep them to yourself unless you’re asked.

Sometimes, talking is overrated. A good visit can be simply being together. Saying “I’m here for you and I love you” can be all someone needs to hear.

Ultimately, being there for your friend doesn’t end with a social visit. You’ll probably want to offer your help going forward, so you think, I’ll tell them “call me if you need anything”. Realistically, they’re not gonna take you up on that. A better option is to go for simple and specific offers of help. If you live locally that might be “can I bring my mac and cheese over this week? I know it’s your favourite”. If you live afar, say, “Shall we phone on Friday? We could make it a weekly catch up”.

Moral of the story: Don’t stay away, just because you don’t know what to say. Don’t step back, just because you think your contribution is insignificant.

If you’re hovering by the phone, hesitating to drive over, or even just thinking of your friend – stop it. In totally new words: just do it.