How to Support Someone Who is Sick
Watching a loved one grapple with a serious illness is a rough experience, and not being able to help them directly can take a huge toll on your mental, emotional and physical health. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to offer support while still preserving your own wellness.
This article offers tips on how to support a sick parent, friend, or loved one, addressing not only what to say when someone is sick but also what kind of personal support you can seek when you’re navigating the complexities of caregiving.
What to say when someone is sick
Let’s tackle the toughest question first: what do you say when someone is sick? The most important aspect of supporting a sick loved one is to offer as much compassion as possible without getting lost in an “empathy trap.”
What do we mean by that? Think of your ability to be emotionally supportive as a kind of “battery.” Empathy compels you to feel the same anguish, grief and despair your loved one is feeling, making you use up your emotional battery. Use too much and then you get burnt out, making you less capable of taking care of your loved one and yourself.
So what can you do?
Instead of using up your emotional battery on empathy, practice compassion. Compassion involves holding space in your heart for your sick loved one… but unlike empathy, it’s not about losing yourself in the feelings they’re feeling—instead, you’re able to understand what they’re going through and help them out without getting mired in it yourself.
Some compassionate things to say when someone is sick include:
- “Whatever you need, I’m here for you.”
- “Is there anything I can help you with?”
- “Here, let me take something off your plate.”
- “Tell me more about what you’re going through.”
- “I bet this is really scary for you. If you need to vent, I’ll listen.”
- “Your life just changed a lot. What kind of relationship do you want to have with yourself and others now that you’re prioritizing your own wellness?”
Notice how all of these statements involve being compassionate for someone, but they don’t put you in the thick of it with them. Instead of saying “I can’t even imagine how painful this is for you,” you’re saying things like “This must be really tough for you, but I’m going to be by your side for it.”
Now let’s talk about how to support someone who’s sick.
How to support someone who is sick
1. Define the relationship
When you’re faced with someone who’s sick, the relationship has changed. For starters, the dynamic is different—instead of a husband, wife, child, friend or sibling, your primary role may now be that of a caretaker or caregiver.
If that’s the case, a good way to prepare for this new role in your life is to ask yourself, “What kind of relationship do I want with my loved one?” In order to maintain a good, supportive, caring relationship, you’re going to have to make sure to re-prioritize all the things you love about your relationship—otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the caretaker “trap” and forget about the parts of the relationship you used to love.
2. Keep communication lines open
Communication is the cornerstone of any relationship, and it becomes even more critical when a loved one is facing a serious illness. Be open and honest about your feelings while also being receptive to theirs. Encourage them to share their thoughts, fears, and hopes, creating a space for understanding and compassion.
3. Keep it practical
With a sick parent or loved one, sometimes compassion isn’t enough—you may need to provide physical assistance, too. Offering tangible help can go a long way. Whether it's preparing meals, running errands, or providing transportation to medical appointments, practical support eases the burden on your loved one and allows them to focus on their health.
Just make sure you’re taking on tasks that you’re happy to do, otherwise you may feel resentful. The rest can be outsourced!
4. Respect their autonomy
While it's natural to want to help, respect your loved one's autonomy. Ask what they need and how you can best support them without assuming you know what's best. Sometimes, simply being there to listen is enough.
This is especially important for your own mental wellness. If you start assuming your loved one is incapable, it can impact your relationship with one another in negative ways. Not only will you start to pity them, but they’ll also begin to think you see them as less than.
5. Get educated
Take the time to educate yourself about the illness. Understanding the challenges and potential outcomes can better equip you to provide real support. It also shows your commitment to being there for your loved one in a knowledgeable and informed manner.
6. Make space to maintain happiness
Despite the difficulties of dealing with a sick parent or loved one, try to create positive moments. Share laughter, engage in activities that bring joy, and focus on the present rather than dwelling solely on the illness. These moments can provide a much-needed break from the challenges you’re facing. Not only that, but they’ll help you create new memories that can lessen the pain of the difficult times you’ve been through.
7. Seek personal coaching
When supporting a sick parent, friend, or loved one, seeking guidance from a trusted professional such as a personal coach can provide valuable insights and coping strategies. Coaching sessions can offer a safe space to express emotions, discuss challenges, and receive personalized insights on how to navigate your unique caregiving journey.
Here's how a coach can help:
- Emotional support: A coach can provide a non-judgmental space to freely express emotions and fears, helping caregivers process their feelings.
- Coping strategies: Dealing with a sick parent or loved one can be overwhelming. A coach can help in developing coping mechanisms and resilience in the face of challenges.
- Prioritizing physical and mental wellness: Caregivers often neglect their own well-being. Coaching can help individuals find a middle ground between caregiving and self-care, preventing burnout.
- Emotional resilience: One of the primary benefits of coaching is its focus on emotional well-being. Caregivers often grapple with a myriad of emotions, from guilt and sadness to frustration and anxiety. A coach can assist in developing emotional resilience, providing tools to manage these feelings and prevent them from becoming overwhelming. Through coaching sessions, individuals learn to cultivate a mindset that fosters positivity and adaptability in the face of adversity.
- Effective communication strategies: Caring for a sick parent or loved one requires clear and compassionate communication. Coaches can help caregivers navigate conversations with understanding while articulating concerns, expressing needs, and maintaining open lines of communication with the person they are caring for. These communication strategies can foster a deeper connection and alleviate potential misunderstandings, strengthening the caregiver-patient relationship.
- Stress management: Caregivers tend to neglect their own well-being as they prioritize the needs of their loved ones. Coaching emphasizes the importance of self-care and stress management. Coaches work with individuals to identify practical strategies for maintaining physical and mental health, ensuring caregivers have the tools needed to sustain their role.
- Finding a deeper purpose: Amidst the challenges of caring for a sick loved one, it's easy for caregivers to lose sight of their own goals and sense of purpose. Coaches assist individuals in working towards realistic and achievable personal goals, fostering a sense of purpose beyond their other responsibilities. This process allows caregivers to maintain a sense of identity and fulfillment, preventing burnout and promoting a healthier dynamic between caregiving and personal life.
- Problem solving and decision-making: Caregivers often face complex decisions regarding the medical, financial, and logistical aspects of their loved one's care. Coaches act as supportive partners in problem-solving, helping caregivers explore various options and make informed decisions that align with both their values and the well-being of their loved one.
- Building a support network: Coaches assist caregivers in establishing a robust support network, which is essential for emotional sustenance. By helping caregivers lean on friends, family, or support groups, coaches create a foundation of encouragement and understanding. This network becomes a valuable resource, providing caregivers with more outlets for expressing their feelings and receiving assistance when needed.
Personal support when someone is sick
Supporting a loved one through an illness requires a combination of compassion, communication, and practical help. While friends and family play a very important role, seeking coaching from a trusted professional can give you additional tools and strategies to navigate the emotional and practical challenges of caregiving. Remember, you don't have to face this journey alone—professional support is available to help you find strength, resilience, and a sense of purpose in supporting your loved one through their health struggles.