Many of us can recall at least one moment when a friend shared news of a recent diagnosis and the world as we know it seemed to shift entirely. How can it be happening to them? They might even be the healthiest person you know and the shock takes time to wear off. So, how can we best be there for a friend when they encounter a major health hurdle?
It can be daunting to know what to do and tempting to pull away. Or some may feel inclined to smother because why channel good intentions into one helpful thing when you can do ten?!
I want to reassure you have something lovely to offer your friend and while each person’s experience is absolutely unique, there are some fundamental tenets that will help guide you as you navigate this new territory of a friendship.
You may be wondering what makes me qualified to talk about this, and that’s fair, so I will touch on that first. Seven years ago after the second full paralysis of the right side of my face and a whole lot of testing, I received an MS diagnosis. I was 25, and the first in my circle of friends to encounter any type of major diagnosis.
Since then, I have walked alongside friends who have experienced major health crashes associated with autoimmune diseases, a friend learning how to navigate Lyme disease, and, most recently, a friend fighting a rare form of cancer.
I’ve been on both sides of the diagnosis and know the complicated combination of discomfort and relief associated with receiving help and also the helplessness and determination of wanting to give support. Each of these positions comes with its own set of challenges.
Before you read any further, please commit to me that you won’t beat yourself up if you have done some of these. I think we have all done at least one and the point here is not for us to fixate on it but instead to explore new ideas.
Stop saying “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you”.
This one is extremely common and comes from the best of intentions. Seriously, please let yourself off the hook if you’ve said it. I certainly have more times than I can count.
Saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” may place the burden on the recipient to think of what you can do for them and often appears to defer the action to a later date. Also, many people aren’t comfortable asking for help so this may put them in a bit of a bind if they are truly needing it.
These alternatives take the place of this statement minus the burden:
I’d like to bring you a meal. Here are some dates I could bring it. I will check in with you to see what sounds good to you.
Ask your friend if there are any recipes they have been eyeing. After receiving a difficult diagnosis, many lack the energy needed to prepare the healthy meals they know their body needs.
An important note here: unless your friend specifically invites you to eat with them and insists, please plan on dropping it off and not staying long. Sometimes the energy of socializing for a meal is more than they have that day. This one also applies to your friend who just moved or just had a new baby. If you don’t live close or your friend seems to truly not be super into this idea, consider sending a gift card for one of their favorite restaurants that delivers.
I’ll cover ___ for you.
If it’s a work friend maybe you can take something off their task list. Or perhaps you take on their carpool shifts. You know your friend best. The idea here is to propose a specific idea so they can simply say yes or no.
Send flowers, a handwritten card, or a care package.
Unless a friend or their family members have specified otherwise, flowers are a beautiful way to brighten a friend’s week and help them feel loved and thought about. Cards and care packages are a great way to send love and thoughtfulness regardless of the circumstances.
The key here is to simply express love and encouragement — no pity! I still vividly remember the card my friend Quinn sent me with “She climbed until she saw” on the front. Pinned to my bulletin board, it was a frequent reminder that she saw me, she believed in my strength to make the climb, and that at some point I would reflect on the whole experience and see life in a new and deeper way (she was right).
Stop saying “I feel so sorry for you”.
No matter how much it sucks and how undeserving your friend is, please do not pity her. She will feel it and that will suck too. She’s a brave warrior, remember? Show empathy all day long, validate what she’s going through, and encourage her that she has what it takes. Reserve the pity for the sweet homeless pets at your local shelter (and maybe consider adopting one or volunteering).
Don’t comment on how good they look.
While this is a certainly a compliment at face value, please know that sometimes people who don’t look sick at all are feeling their absolute worst, battling the fog of chronic pain, or are so taxed from fighting their illness that even the basic necessities of getting through their day leave them entirely spent. Even if it doesn’t show. Your friend with cancer may not lose her hair and may still feel the worst she’s ever felt, all at the same time.
Be tender. Ask your friend how she is really feeling and reassure her that whatever that may be, it’s okay. And then feel free to tell her she is beautiful and a brave warrior. The key is to provide the space for her experience without dismissing it at face value.
Please keep inviting her.
“I’m not going to invite her to ___ because I don’t think she will want to come.” You’re right, she may not feel up for coming but please keep inviting her. She likely already feels like she has lost so much and feeling left out in general so it is key that you keep showing her you’re thinking of her and that her absence is felt. Maybe preface the invite with something like this: “No pressure at all. I want you to know that I’m thinking of you and you’re welcome, as always.”
Try giving them a gift they can use now.
A shift in a friend’s life situation is a great time to get creative with gift giving. Consider sending a self-care focused gift that includes one small item you know they will love plus money or gift cards they can put towards supplements or other forms of self-care. Navigating a new health challenge can get expensive fast and this can help alleviate the burden as they make shifts in their budget. This is also a great time to rally as a group of friends to pitch in on a group gift like a massage.
Please don’t share a story about a similar situation with a bleak outcome.
Would you share the worst birth story you’ve ever heard with your friend who is eight months pregnant? Okay, enough said. I know you want to empathize but please keep in mind that your friend is best served when you avoid stories or comments that are discouraging and suck the optimistic, healing energy right out of the room.
Avoid over-optimism in somber circumstances.
There is a beautiful sweet spot of encouragement and being real with a friend about the implications of their diagnosis. Playing the role of Eeyore or Richard Simmons doesn’t feel great in these moments so do your best to read the room, ask gentle questions that invite conversation if your friend desires that, and be mindful that your own desires for their healing or fears don’t overtake the present situation which may include a difficult prognosis.
Not sure where to start with questions? Here are some ideas:
- What symptoms are you experiencing?
- When is your next appointment with your doctor?
- Do you feel like your current doctor is listening to you?
- How is all of this impacting your work?
- How are you feeling these days?
- How are your medications working for you right now?
- Are you able to give yourself the self-care you need?
- Are you listening to your body when you need to rest?
Find a way to lift her spirits… but one that she can handle.
Your friend may not want to go out even if that was the best way to cheer her up every other time she had a hard week previously. This is a beautiful opportunity to find a new way to pump her up. My friend Luke brought me and my now husband a care basket complete with some of my favorite snacks and a new movie featuring a protagonist who overcame tragedy against all odds.
Give them a free pass if they haven’t been their best self.
I’m all for healthy boundaries and choosing friendships that are life-giving. Following a diagnosis, please give your friend that otherwise treated you like gold a free pass. She may be under an incredible amount of psychological and physical pressure and may be taking medications that alter her state in a number of ways. I did some pretty crazy stuff after receiving a mega-dose of IV steroids and had to work my way through a difficult season of depression. Stick it out, sister. A friendship with history will sustain.
Try to visit but don’t force it.
This one is tricky, no doubt. The key lies in the impact your visit has on a friend. If you’re able to stop by briefly to drop something off and stay and chat if she seems to want that, please do it. Even if it means driving a few hours on your day off. It will mean the world.
Be mindful that your visit isn’t requiring a lot of energy output for your friend. If you are visiting from out of town and stay with your friend, take on more of a hosting roll yourself by making meals, helping walk her dog, and filling her fridge with some of her favorite items. If you’re getting the drift that she’s just not up for a visit, don’t force it and find another way to show her you care (like flowers or a card).
While some of these may seem like common sense, I wouldn’t be talking about them if I hadn’t navigated them myself or known of a friend and therefore feel it’s important to speak them.
The common thread in all of this is fairly simple: The more attuned we can be to our friends and mindful of what we are feeling along with what they are going for, the better we are able to support them in a difficult season post-diagnosis. Doing this will not only allow you to be there for them in a supportive way, it will also deepen your friendship in ways that you never imagined possible. And that, beautiful warriors, is one of the best gifts we can give or receive.