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10 Ways to Make Life Easier for a Sick Friend

Take this advice from someone who's been on both sides

Your friend is nursing a broken limb, recovering from surgery or going through cancer treatments. You want to help, but aren’t sure what to do.

Here are 10 suggestions from someone who has both helped and been helped. Thank goodness for friends!

1. Sit with your friend. And don’t just sit there. Be willing to listen attentively if your friend wants to vent or express feelings of fear about the future, or feelings that he or she is reluctant to share with a spouse or partner.

When my friend Jim was hospitalized for several serious conditions, I stopped by once a week to talk about life, and also about death. Though Jim was not expected to recover, he did — and lived another 23 years. But being open to the hard conversations served both of us well.

2  Laugh when the opportunity presents itself. Going through chemotherapy after surgery for breast cancer some years ago, I wept when I told a friend that I likely would never be able to travel again. (At that time, I didn’t know anyone who had even survived breast cancer, much less gone on to live a normal life.)

Your friend can accept or reject any suggestion, but do go beyond, 'Let me know if I can do anything,' which is frustratingly vague.

Edward shot back with this: “What — they did something to your legs?”

3. Offer to take on specific tasks. Your friend can accept or reject any suggestion, but do go beyond “Let me know if I can do anything,” which is frustratingly vague.

If your friend has not determined what would be helpful, whip out your smartphone (or even a pen) and brainstorm together about what needs doing. Possible tasks include pet care, bill paying, plant tending, picking up medication refills, calling out-of-state friends so they can join the support team, ATM runs, catching up on laundry and arranging transport for future treatments.

Once a list is available, your friend will be ready with an answer the next time someone asks if he or she can do “anything.”

4. Organize food delivery or grocery shopping services. If your friend belongs to a book club, political organization or church group, delegate responsibility to these groups. Once you provide contact info, dietary restrictions and a sense of what is needed when, group members can, and will happily, do the rest. Who among us doesn’t feel good when we are asked to help?

Also, never underestimate the joy of a bed-ridden person when a friend walks in unexpectedly with a chocolate malt.

5. Send cheery notes. Once a week, rely on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a card or a postcard. People stuck in the house rejoice when a personal communication arrives that can be read and reread at leisure.

The note doesn’t need to be long. You can go with the standard but comforting: “Thinking of you.” Or, if it’s true, you can write: “Every day you will be a little better.”

If that doesn’t apply, forget about a note and send a “Cancer Sucks” button or a fridge magnet that reads, “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” which is attributed to Winston Churchill. Both are available online.

6. Serve as Command Central. Offer (or assign someone else) to send periodic emails to your friend’s friends with medical updates on a “need-to-know” basis plus information about good times to call or make short visits. Or set up a CaringBridge website page for your friend.

Don’t be shy about saying “No Visits” or “No Calls” if your friend needs rest. Most of us feel compelled to play the gracious host whenever a friend walks into our home, even if we are sick in bed. Ironically, the impulse seems stronger if that bed is in a hospital room.

Do include an address so others may send cards or notes. When my friend Judy’s damaged heart valve was replaced last year with that of a cow, I sent emails to her list of 63 friends asking that they mail cow-themed greeting cards. (There aren’t many out there!)

Then, a mutual friend suggested we make a group donation in Judy’s honor to an international charity that helps buy cows and other livestock for poor families around the globe. That — and of course the cow Christmas ornaments — helped Judy heal.

7. Set up a rotating chauffeur service. Maybe your friend needs rides for doctor appointments, physical therapy sessions or chemo sessions. Assign yourself or others on the support team so your friend doesn’t stress out about this.

Speaking of stress, recent research shows how well we all respond to time spent in nature. “Green therapy,” the experts call it. If possible, schedule a short drive for your friend through a park or to a lake or (if it’s geographically possible) to the edge of the continent. You don’t have to get out of the car, but if the weather cooperates, do open the windows and inhale deeply.

On the other hand, if your friend misses the mall, go there instead for a short coffee date.

8. Provide light entertainment. Drop off magazines full of celebrity news, those silly magazines we all read while waiting at the dentist’s office or in line at the grocery.

This is no time to show up with in-depth articles, serious tomes or recent research reports on your friend’s illness or treatment. Our powers of concentration often are dimmed during illness, so purposefully provide news your friend can’t use, news that may instead inspire a good laugh.

9. Bring chatty reports to your friend’s bedside. OK, we’re talking local gossip, but of the non-malicious kind. Even better, sit together and stream or watch a DVD of a meaty TV show and then gossip about the characters. Lady Mary’s adventure with poor Mr. Pamuk in season 1 of PBS’s Downton Abbey comes to mind.

10. Encourage your friend to accept reality. Now and then we all need permission to acknowledge that right now we can’t do everything we usually do, that business as usual will have to wait.

So many of us have trouble asking for help because we think that is a sign of weakness. Not only will we not ask others for help, we often are less than forgiving with ourselves.

Tell your friend that what’s going on now is only that, and won’t be going on forever. It’s difficult to get any perspective on the present, and besides, healing takes time. Suggest your friend take the long view and embrace resting — or at least cutting back now — in the hope of a quicker recovery.

How have you helped a sick friend? We’d love to hear about your experience. Tell us in the comments section below.


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