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Do’s and Don’ts for Talking to a Friend or Family Member With a Serious Illness

When someone you know is diagnosed with a serious illness, it can be hard to know how to act around him or her, or what to say. Your first instinct might be to give that person some privacy and space, but support from family, friends, coworkers, and others can actually help people with serious illnesses. Social support can improve an ill person’s health, quality of life, and adjustment to the diagnosis. Below are do’s and don’ts on how you can be supportive.

Do’s That Can Help

  • DO recognize and manage your own reactions. When someone close to you is diagnosed with a serious illness it can be a shock. You might be scared or angry. Recognizing and managing these reactions will free you up to be a support rather than a burden.

  • DO learn about the disease.The more you understand the disease, the better you will be at communicating with your friend or loved one.

  • DO know the difference between being a good listener and being a good problem-solver.Sometimes people want your help solving a problem. Other times they just need to be heard. Notice which one the person needs, and try to be open to either.

  • DO be a source of support and strength. Give emotional support by listening when needed or offering a shoulder to cry on. Validate the individual’s feelings, which can range from guilt and shame to anger, denial, or fear. Support the person if he or she is considering talking to a counselor or psychologist.

  • DO ask how you can help, and take action. Ask if there is anything you can do to be useful, and suggest ways you can help, such as doing specific daily errands or chores, driving the person to treatment, or picking up medications. Better yet, if you are going to the grocery store, offer to pick something up for him or her, or if you are planning to cook a meal, bring by dinner.

  • DO encourage openness and honesty. Encourage the person to be honest with trusted family and friends about their condition. Loved ones need to understand what is happening so they know how to help. This is particularly important for children, so they don’t blame themselves or confuse the situation for a problem they have caused.

  • DO be prepared for difficult reactions. Some people may act in an unusual manner after getting a serious diagnosis. They may be withdrawn even if they are usually social, or they may lash out in anger. Try to be patient and not take it personally.

Don’ts That You’ll Want to Avoid

  • DON’T avoid talking about the illness. It can be hard to know what to say, but avoiding the topic won’t help. Try to find a way to express your concern that is direct and that comes from the heart. In many cases, a simple expression of concern, such as, “I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this,” is enough to break the ice.

  • DON’T minimize the situation. Coping with a serious illness can cause stress, anxiety, and depression. Don’t dismiss these as “normal” reactions. Stress, anxiety, and depression can lead some people to stop their treatment or cause them to pick up bad habits like smoking, drinking, or eating poorly. Encourage the individual to seek help for their symptoms.

  • DON’T give advice about how to cope. Each person has a different way of coping, and what works for some may not work for others. Instead, reinforce any positive ways the person is coping, such as talking to loved ones, getting counseling, going to church, joining a support group, exercising, or meditating.

Helping someone through a serious illness can be difficult. But there are practical and thoughtful ways to make it easier. Communicate openly, listen, help out with errands or other tasks, and encourage the person to seek help for depression or anxiety. Knowing what to say or do can help you support friends or loved ones through a difficult time.

These articles are not a substitute for medical advice, and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise or medication regimen.



Sources

Coping with Chronic Illness, Medline Plus:
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/copingwithchronicillness.html

How To Help a Friend or Loved One Suffering From a Chronic Illness, American Psychological Association:
http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/help-chronic.aspx

Living with A Chronic Illness—Reaching Out to Others, Medline Plus:
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000602.htm

Strom, J. L., & Egede, L. E. (2012). The impact of social support on outcomes in adult patients with type 2 diabetes: a systematic review. Current diabetes reports, 12(6), 769-781.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3490012/

Talking About Cancer, American Cancer Society:
http://www.cancer.org/treatment/understandingyourdiagnosis/talkingaboutcancer/

Thompson, T., Rodebaugh, T. L., Pérez, M., Schootman, M., & Jeffe, D. B. (2013). Perceived social support change in patients with early stage breast cancer and controls. Health Psychology, 32(8), 886.
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White-Williams, C., Grady, K. L., Myers, S., Naftel, D. C., Wang, E., Bourge, R., & Rybarczyk, B. (2013). The relationships among satisfaction with social support, quality of life, and survival 5 to 10 years after heart transplantation. The Journal of cardiovascular nursing, 28(5), 407.
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