The Goods

In sickness and in health – How to support a loved one who is ill

Dr. Jeff Myers shares the do’s and don’ts of how to be there when it really matters
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

We've all been there. A friend or family member is seriously ill and we wonder how to best support them. Dr. Jeff Myers, head of palliative care at the University of Toronto, stopped by The Goods to offer advice and answers.

No matter how close you are to someone who is ill people always wonder what the right thing is to say. Dr. Myers thinks this is because people think there is a right thing to say and most of the time, there isn't. When you learn a friend or family member has a serious illness or even if it's the spouse of a friend or co-worker, a better way to think is "what's the right thing to do." Giving some thought to what actions might be the most meaningful to the person is way more likely to be helpful, regardless of the situation.

Here are some Do's and Don'ts:

DON'T say "I understand" or "I'm sorry." DO stop and listen.

There's an important distinction between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for a person and empathy is feeling sorry with a person. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes. You can show an ill friend that you feel bad they're going through something, or you can instead choose to stand beside them and be whatever it is that they need.

Encourage your friend to feel free to speak with you about their concerns, fears, needs, disappointments, and anything else they want to talk about. Stop, put your phone down, and really listen. Unless it's a person you're very close to, like a spouse or best friend, the reason a person would decide to share information is that they just need to tell the story. The most helpful thing you can do is just listen.

DON'T try to problem-solve or fix things. DO some research and be genuinely curious.

There's a good chance a person is not looking for advice or your opinion. Most of the time it's not helpful to hear "have you tried this treatment" or "have you spoken to that type of doctor." Don't make it about you or the story you have. The person confiding in you doesn't want to hear the story about your great aunt Doris.

Instead, learn what you can about your loved one's illness so that you are better informed – knowledge is power! And if you have a question about their treatment, just ask. Offer to go to appointments with them and be the scribe. Doctors have a tendency to throw a great deal of information at a person who's not going to remember most of it, so offer to be the silent person in the corner who takes notes.

DON'T exclude them from plans. DO offer to help with specific tasks.

We're not accustomed to dealing with things that are uncomfortable so there's a tendency to avoid or exclude because we don't want to impose or be a bother. However, people with illnesses typically want life to carry on as normally or typically as possible

Because people universally don't want to be a burden there's a good chance they won't ask for help. Avoid generic "let me know if I can do anything" statements, and be specific. It's way more helpful to offer ideas of how you can help so they know what type of help you're willing to provide. Even the most mundane tasks can add up, especially if the person dealing with an illness has a lot of appointments to attend or medical treatments. It's important to note that if you're a family member, be prepared and willing to take on new roles and responsibilities around the house.

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