When someone you know receives a difficult diagnosis, it can be hard to know how best to support them. Here are our simple but effective steps to supporting someone during this challenging time.
The Difficult Diagnosis
Many of us will be faced with the upsetting situation of finding out that a family member, friend or coworker has been diagnosed with a serious health condition. The diagnosis may have turned their life upside down, and this could be one of the times when they need your support the most.
Receiving a difficult diagnosis can be a time of extreme emotions and stress, but knowing how to support someone with a serious illness is key to navigating this time.
First Steps in Offering Support
Just as a diagnosis of serious illness will be upsetting for the person in question, you may have your own fears. Although it might feel impossibly hard, it is important to remember that your friend or family member may need to lean on you at times. To ensure you can help them, you must be sure to get your own support in place. This may be via your own friends or through more formal therapy.
It is normal to be unsure about what to say to someone who is very sick, but don’t be held back by this. The most important thing is to say something and acknowledge their situation. Remaining silent could make them feel that you don’t care or aren’t willing to talk about something that will be front and center of their mind.
Even saying “I don’t know what to say”, or “I don’t know what you need right now, but I’ll do my best to help” shows authenticity and your desire to be there for them.
It sounds so obvious, but active listening takes some practice. This form of listening involves really focusing on what someone else is saying, noticing verbal cues and showing someone else that you are processing what they’re saying.
Try not to interrupt their flow and let their words tumble out. Even if you feel unable to offer advice, thoughtful responses such as “that must be so hard”, or “I can’t imagine what that must feel like” will show them that you care.
If you give someone the space to talk and they want to, then they will. Some people may not want to talk about their diagnosis or illness, and that’s ok. If they don’t want to share their feelings, you’ll need to respect this.
Don’t People Please
It can be very tempting to offer assurances of complete recovery or unexpected remission, but this is unlikely to be helpful to someone who has received a difficult diagnosis.
In fact, offering unfounded predictions may lessen their trust in you or make them feel that you don’t understand the gravity of the situation. Stick to the facts rather than trying to offer false hope.
Keep It about Them
It can be tempting to bring in your own past experience when speaking to someone after a difficult diagnosis. Tales of a distant friend who beat the odds may not make your friend or relative feel hopeful.
When facing a life changing diagnosis, focus purely on your friend or family member and what they need. It might feel natural to share your own experience, but when your friend is facing their biggest storm, you’ll need to put your thoughts to one side and focus on them.
Offer Help (and Mean It)
This is one of the most important things you can do for a friend or family member who is facing illness, and possibly feeling physically sick, too.
When you offer help, it’s important to really mean it. Half-hearted offers of “call me if you need me” are not going to cut it. Be specific by offering to do chores or tasks for them and they’ll be more likely to take you up on it.
Making someone a meal or doing a grocery shop for them can really take the pressure off. When life is full of stress or anxiety, having someone else take care of groceries frees up valuable time for reflection or rest, and ensures they have a nutritious meal, too.
For someone with children, offering to collect their kids from school, arrange playdates or ferry them to sports clubs can relieve a huge burden of time and exertion. Knowing that someone else has taken responsibility for an afternoon is vital for someone struggling physically or mentally.
Similarly, if there is a pet dog who requires walking, or a cat who has been lacking in attention since the diagnosis, offer to take care of them for a while.
Offer to Clean
Having a clean home has been shown to reduce anxiety. You may even sleep better if your bedsheets are fresh. This is a really simple, practical way you can help a friend or relative. Offering to clean their entire house may not be feasible due to the pressures in your own life, but you could offer to clean the kitchen or bathroom to relieve some of their mental load without adding to your own.
Take Them to Appointments
Following a difficult diagnosis, your friend or relative may be inundated with medical appointments. These appointments can be physically draining and emotionally charged. Taking responsibility for driving them there and back will allow them to focus only on the appointment itself.
If they would like you to come into the appointment with them, be proactive in helping. If they require any answers from the appointment, make a note of the questions to ensure they are asked.
Additionally, taking in large volumes of information can be overwhelming for any patient, so take some paper and make notes that they can digest afterwards.
Not everyone will want to spend hours talking about their feelings. Some people will just want you to carry on with your relationship as normal. Sit and watch your favorite TV shows together, share coffee and cake at your favorite coffee bar, or go for walks. A difficult diagnosis doesn’t have to change your relationship.
Support from Afar
If you live further away, you can still offer support from a distance. Send a card, have ready-made meals delivered to their door, video call or send a voucher for a massage or pedicure. Do things that show you care and are thinking of them.
Look after Yourself
Supporting someone following a difficult diagnosis can take its toll on your own mental health. You may feel overwhelmed, saddened or distressed by the diagnosis itself and the potential impact it may have on both you and them.
Make time for self-care which might include speaking to someone who is invested in your feelings, such as a therapist. You could also make time for exercise or book a massage.
Supporting someone after a difficult diagnosis can be achieved by taking the time to listen and offering help in practical ways.
You must be sure to take care of your own wellbeing whilst supporting someone else. A therapist will focus on your mental health to ensure you are supported and have space to share your feelings.
Hannah England is a freelance copywriter with a medical degree. After working as a doctor for several years, she now writes medical and well-being articles. Hannah endeavors to empower people by providing informative content that allows them to make healthy choices for improved physical and mental health. Hannah is part of the LGBT+ community and an inclusion expert, allowing her to write copy that is relevant to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or identity. Hannah lives in a village in the South West of England.Read more