How to effectively be there for someone who is sick

May 11, 2022

be-there-for-someone-who-is-sickYou’d think that the ability to be there for a loved one who’s sick would be natural. Turns out, it is a rarer skill than we’d like it to be.

I know a little about this, mainly because I spent more than a decade being there for people with HIV through an amazing organization called the Aris Project that was active during the height of the AIDs epidemic. As a volunteer, I went through a two weekend training that changed my life. And amped up my ability to be there for people in need.

My late friend often said that she wished some of her other friends would provide the same kind of support I did. That’s because I didn’t push talk her to talk about her illness or cancer . I was light, but not too light. We were thousands of miles apart, so our communication was texts, calls, emails.

I knew her sense of humor, so I would text her diverting memes. Ridiculous cat memes were a favorite. I was present, but not pushy. I didn’t ask about her cancer or constantly want a health update. I let her decide what she wanted to tell me about it. More often than not our conversations were about family, politics, travel. I sent little gifts. A pad of drawing paper. a little hat. A stuffed llama.

So here’s how to be there for someone who is sick:

Let them drive. Sometimes we push ourselves on people who are sick. We’re well-meaning. We think we know what they want. But really, we don’t know. So, let them set the tone. Let them tell you what they want.

Ask. Do not expect them to ask you for help. Offer tangible support. “I’d like to bring you some chicken soup, would that be ok?” “Do you need me to go to the grocery store for you this week?”  “Can I do your laundry?” Be as specific as possible. Because people usually do not want to impose.

Stay light but don’t make light of their situation.

Be present. Let them know you are there. Texts. Cards. Emails. Phone calls.

Offer tangible support. Be helpful and anticipate the ways. Sweep or shovel the walk. Start the car.

Do not expect them to call on you. Or even call you.

Can you add anything to my list?

And don’t forget our gentle, supportive healing tools in my Etsy shop.

12 comments on “How to effectively be there for someone who is sick
  1. I’ve had to work through this one myself.

  2. Diane says:

    Such wonderful suggestions, Carol! I’m very guilty of asking “if there’s anything I can do” and having them say ‘no’. And feeling totally inadequate. These suggestions are pure gold!

  3. Alana says:

    I can’t think of anything to add. I think your first piece of advice, “let them drive”, is the most important, because no two people have the same needs or wants. Based on my personal experiences (several friends who have moved on to the next destination), I agree with everything on this list.

  4. Rita says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. Many good points to consider.

  5. Jennifer says:

    All good points to consider. I would also suggest don’t bring up things they’ll miss or trying to bargain with them to stay alive just “one more month” to be there for some special event. It is so true to keep it light if that’s their guidance. When my MIL died, she had less than a week to live and wanted to surround herself with all of her family, children, nieces, nephews, greats, and distant. Together they laughed over their collective history. I only hope I can be so brave when it’s my time. And don’t forget the caregivers. Just showing up to sit with someone allows their caregiving family a respite.

  6. Laurie Stone says:

    I’ve only known a few people in these challenging situations. Your tips are excellent and I’ll remember them.

  7. I’ve had more experience with this than I would have liked losing both my husband and long-time live-in boyfriend to cancer. You just deal with it and stay cool because they don’t need more stress than they already have.

  8. Nancy Hill says:

    As Baba Ram Dass said, “Be here now.” All we can do is be there in the moment offering to do specifics, listening, and being as attuned as possible. I’ve loved and lost so many, I just try to be with the person with light, goodness, and love.

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