10 ways to help a friend newly diagnosed with chronic illness
Earlier this year, a good friend of mine came to me to ask how she could best support another mutual friend who’s been unwell recently, and might be diagnosed with a chronic illness.
I thought it might be helpful if I shared my advice here.
1. Believe them.
Believe what they say. Believe them when they say they aren’t able to do something. Believe that it hurts even if doctors can’t find a reason for why it hurts. Believe them.
2. Let them know it’s okay to be ill and have completely awful days.
Reassure them that they don’t need to put on a brave face for you, and that they can stop using their energy for a facade. It’s okay if they’re having a fucking awful day and just need to feel sad about their life right now.
3. Keep them focused on the right now.
One of the hardest things at the start of ongoing illness is worrying about the future. If you can try and keep them focused on the next minute, the next hour, the next day, that’s what matters right now.
4. Encourage them to do what their body is telling them to do.
This follows on from #3, but if they’re having to take time off work with sick days, if they need a sick day, take the damn sick day. Try and help them not worry about the ‘what ifs’ of using up their sick day quota or whatever.
5. Make sure they’ve got food in
(depending on illness and your friendship level)
Preferably easily cookable, moderately ‘healthy’ food. Wasting spoons on food prep is silly.
6. Suggest low energy/low pressure ways you can hang out
For example “I’m coming over for an hour and a half, and I’m going to cook for you.” Things that mean they don’t have to use additional energy, but they still get to see you.
7. Try to remove stresses and decisions wherever possible
Pick what takeaway you’re having. Decide what film you’re watching. Help out with filling in forms or reading things. Being ill generally means having no cope for anything beyond the absolute basics (if that).
8. Check in to see if there’s anything you can do + actually suggest things to do.
For example, clothes washing, changing sheets, washing up, etc can all quickly become insurmountable challenges. You might also want them to get out one of these free printable PDFs.
9. Be careful with what language you use about the future – either way
For example, try and avoid both “Don’t worry, we’ll get you better soon!” and assuming they will be stuck like this for years to come. There’s a shit load of emotions they’re going to have to work through about accepting vs. fighting this over the coming months, no matter what their illness is, and what people around you are saying definitely gets internalised. See #3 and keep them focused on the present.
10. Let them know you are thinking of them even if they’re not able to hang out.
This can be a tricky one to get right. You don’t want to constantly be all “how are you? how are you? how are you?”, but you do want to send a text every couple of days to let them know that you’re thinking of them, and you’re available to help, and you saw something funny on a TV show and it made you think of them. Some of the cards in The Pillow Fort shop are designed for just this situation. They’re not ‘Get Well Soon’, but they still show your thoughts are with them.
What are your top tips for helping a friend newly diagnosed (or newly ill) with a chronic illness? Was there anything friends did for you that really made a difference? I’d love to know in the comments!