When someone is faced with a health crisis, everyone who loves that person is faced with it. Questions of mortality, fears of loss, extended periods of uncertainty are felt by everyone who loves a person who is ill, and even by people who just sort of know them. In a good year, we go about our daily business, exercising, eating relatively well, cutting back on habits we know are bad for us. But then someone we love is stricken with an illness that is serious and we can’t help but list the millions of ways it is unfair. Why them, and not you? Or better yet, why them and not some child molester?
Nothing about disease makes sense, and it will take a while for you to come to accept that. You can waste a lot of time blaming or judging, but in the end, what you have to do is figure out how you are going to cope with the reality of the new situation and help that person you love get through it the best you can.
They need to cry. When someone is faced with a serious health crisis, the range and speed of emotions that they (and you) go through is furious and disorienting. No one likes to see someone cry. And next to the helplessness you are feeling when up against this physical threat your loved one is faced with, watching them sob uncontrollably is the second worst feeling in the world. Seeing anyone in pain is difficult, and knowing that there is nothing you can do, no responsibility you can take, to relieve that pain, makes you feel even more helpless and useless.
But, sometimes, being there to hold them when they are crying is the best thing you can do. You feel like there is nothing you can say to make them feel better, and you’re right. There will be times when nothing you can say will make it okay, not even for a second. Knowing that you are willing to sit there and let them cry will let them know that they are safe expressing whatever they feel. If you are uncomfortable, suck it up and pretend you aren’t, because at this moment, it isn’t about you.
They need to talk. Everyone copes with things differently. Some people are more verbal than others, and will need to talk through every single feeling they are having (and these could change on an hourly basis). Others will feel the need to be strong for the people they care about. Everyone needs to talk about their illness to someone who they feel they don’t need to protect, someone they feel they can be honest with. If you get the feeling that you are not that person, don’t take it personally. It just means they want to protect you. If they won’t open up to you, make sure there is someone they are speaking to. If they don’t want to “burden” their loved ones, set them up with a counselor.
You need to find a balance between letting them know you are there if they want to talk, and not pushing them to talk about things they don’t want to think about. Everyone deals with things at their own pace. Sometimes they may say things that shock you, and that you cannot bear to hear (like what kind of song they want at their funeral, just in case). But they are saying these things for a reason that is very important to them. It is not meant to hurt you. If they are facing their mortality—whether or not these details need to be imminently discussed—they need to feel as though they are being heard.
They need all of their supports. When my best friend got sick, she dealt with it at first by shutting out many of the people who were the closest to her. We were all confused and hurt at various times, knowing that she was making time for people who barely knew her while refusing to see those closest to her. She let us in one at a time, at different points along the way, and I came to realize that everyone in her life that cared for her, even those who didn’t know her very well, had a role in her well being.
Those of us who were closest to her she had to hold at arm’s length sometimes because she couldn’t handle seeing the pain in our eyes. Sometimes she just wanted to forget about the treatment and the details and just have some laughs with people who weren’t as emotionally implicated in her illness.
Other loved ones she needed around her when she was afraid and needed to cry, still others for when she needed to feel strong and certain that she would be okay. Everyone has a role, and so if you don’t know what yours is, sometimes simply asking “Is there anything you need? Is there anything I can do?” and respecting the answer by not taking it personally, is the best thing you can do.
They need you to be available, but not needy. While it is true that, as someone who loves a person who is struggling with illness, you are going through an incredibly difficult a time, in the end it is them who is dealing with pain and treatment and mortality in a way that you simply are not.
By reassuring them that you are there for them, for whatever they need, whether it is space, or a shoulder to cry on, or just a laugh every now and again, you are showing that you care. Whether they take you up on those offers is their choice, and it may be made for reasons you don’t understand.
When someone is concentrating on getting healthy, they need to focus their energies on whatever it takes to accomplish that. Don’t ever go away, but never push your needs onto them. It is true that you need assurances and support, but sometimes, they just don’t have it to give.
They need you to be positive, but not dismissive. A person’s state of mind is one of their most powerful tools for getting well. Always be positive, even when you aren’t feeling it. It can’t hurt. Being positive, however, does not include dismissing someone’s fears or wishes. There will be times when they are going to go to some dark places and dismissing that as nonsense is not helpful.
Let them talk through their fears without judging lest they feel they cannot broach this topic with you. If you can’t deal with this conversation, find someone who can help them talk those things out. For some, it could be therapeutic to verbalize a worst-case scenario. Just don’t let them dwell in it. Instead of talking about eventualities, keep the person in the moment, focused on short-term treatment plans.
Make sure that they have events outside of the illness and treatment that they can look forward to: special, positive treats like weekends away or gatherings of friends.
You need supports. One of the most important things that you can do for a sick loved one is take care of yourself. You will need someone to talk to about how you are feeling, about how you are coping. The person who is sick is not that person. As honest as you can be with them, they are going to make you feel angry and hurt sometimes, and you are going to feel like an asshole for feeling those things. But you’re not.
You need someone who won’t judge you to listen to your frustrations so that they don’t well up inside you and affect your ability to support your loved one in the ways that they need it. You need things to look forward to as well, and you need to get away from the illness sometimes too. That doesn’t make you selfish. In the end, you can only care for someone else properly if you are feeling strong yourself.