10 Ways to Support a Friend With Chronic Illness

When you learn that a friend has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, like COPD, it can be hard to figure out the best way to support them. You might feel helpless, or confused about the best way to help your friend. Still, they’ve trusted you with this news, so you can play an important part in helping them deal with this new reality.

Here’s what to do when it’s time for you to help your friend through this difficult situation.

Ways to Support a Friend Who Has a Chronic Illness

Finding the best ways to support a friend with a recent chronic illness diagnosis can be a delicate balance. You’ll want to make sure you let your friend know that you’re there for them. However, you also want to make sure you put their needs first and don’t overwhelm them with your desire to help.

Support a Friend With Chronic Illness

To find the right balance of support and respecting your friend’s needs, try the following tips to support them.

1. Listen without judgment

This is not the time to give advice or make recommendations about what your friend should do for their health. Let your friend take the lead in any discussion about their illness and truly listen to how they feel. When they tell you they’re suffering or struggling in some way, believe them and offer comfort, not judgment.

2. Ask your friend what they need

If you want to help, don’t assume that you know what your friend needs. Every person and situation will be slightly different, which means everyone wants or needs different types of help. Ask specifically, “How can I help?” They may need a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or they may simply need someone to sit with them for a while.

3. Give them space and don’t overstep

Once again, this is all about avoiding assumptions. Chronic illnesses are exhausting, and sometimes your friend may just need some time to rest and recuperate. If you’re frustrated that your friend isn’t calling back or letting you help, ask whether your desire to help is more about you than your friend’s needs. Similarly, if your friend asks for time or says they can’t spend time with you, respect that space without judgment.

4. Respect their privacy

Adjusting to life with a chronic illness takes time. Your friend may not be ready to broadcast their illness to everyone they know. If they’ve shared the news with you, let them tell you as much or as little as they want. Also, make sure you respect your friend’s privacy and do not share the information with others.

Similarly, if you’ve heard through other friends that a friend has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, don’t say anything unless you’re certain that they’re sharing this information publicly (like via social media).

5. Show that it’s okay to have hard days

Living with a chronic illness is not easy. Some days, your friend will struggle physically. Some days they’ll struggle emotionally. Some days they might deal with both. Make sure you show your friend that it’s okay for them not to feel okay and that you’ll be by their side anyway.

6. Do not compare your experiences with theirs

A lot of people try to relate by making comparisons between their own experiences and something someone else is going through. However, when you do this, it centers you in the discussion rather than centering on the friend who needs you. Keep the focus on what they’re going through.

7. Research the illness to better understand what your friend is going through

It can be helpful for people to talk about what they’re going through, but it can be equally frustrating to have to rehash the basics of their illness with every person they talk to. If you can do a little research about your friend’s illness, it can help you understand what they might be experiencing. It can also help you understand how best to help them.

Best Ways to Help a Friend Who Has a Chronic Illness

8. Don’t minimize or bright-side the situation

If you find yourself starting any sentence with, “At least you… “ stop right there. It’s important not to try to find silver linings when your friend just needs an empathetic ear. Try responding with phrases like, “That sounds hard,” or “I can’t imagine.” If you truly don’t know what to say, just show that you understand that it’s difficult by saying, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

9. If you accidentally say or do the wrong thing, own it and apologize

Everyone makes mistakes, even when you’re trying hard to do the right thing. If you suddenly realize that you’ve said or done the wrong thing in any way, just take responsibility for it and apologize right away. Chances are your friend will forgive you quickly, but even if they need time, they’ll know that you didn’t mean to hurt them.

10. Let your friend know you’re not going anywhere

For many people with chronic illnesses, one of the hardest things to handle is watching friends slowly disappear. Some people have a hard time sticking around when times are tough, or staying engaged while a friend disappears when things are hardest.

That doesn’t mean you have to be available 24/7 no matter what—you have to take care of yourself, too. But making an effort to show your friend that you’re sticking around through good times and bad, and that you’ll be there for them, is extremely meaningful.

Remember, even with a chronic illness, your friend is still your friend. Their illness may change what they can do or how they interact, but it doesn’t fundamentally change who they are. It’s important to make space for discussing your friend’s illness when they want to, but it’s also important to just talk about simple, everyday things like a favorite TV show.

Ultimately, you can support your friend through their chronic illness by showing them that you’re there for them, you won’t judge them and you’ll be there to help them when they need it.

Sources of Information

Bursack, Carol Bradley. “How to Support a Friend Who Has a Chronic Illness.” AgingCare.com, AgingCare, 20 June 2019, www.agingcare.com/articles/support-friend-with-chronic-illness-179092.htm.

Davidson, Eileen. “How You Can Support Someone with a Chronic Illness (and Some Real Advice on How *Not* To).” CreakyJoints, https://Creakyjoints.org/Support/How-to-Support-Someone-with-Chronic-Illness/, 28 Oct. 2020.

“How to Help a Friend or Loved One Suffering from a Chronic Illness.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2011, www.apa.org/topics/chronic-illness/help.

Peters, Liesl. Healthline, Healthline Media, 16 Sept. 2018, www.healthline.com/health/ulcerative-colitis/chronic-illness-dos-donts?c=1587989729474#1.

Todd, Carolyn L. “9 Ways to Support a Friend Who’s Just Been Diagnosed With a Chronic Illness.” SELF, Condé Nast, 23 May 2018, www.self.com/story/support-friend-chronic-illness.

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