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How to Help a Loved One Dealing with a Life-Threatening Illness

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How to Help a Loved One Dealing with a Life-Threatening Illness

Receiving the news a loved one has been diagnosed with illness is never easy. Unfortunately, many times, friends and family may not know the best way to reach out.

UnityPoint Hospice chaplain, Reverend Norman Prather, has years of experience helping hospice patients through difficult times and has seen a pattern typically emerge when a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

Social Life

“It’s unfortunate, but so many times a person’s social circle can dramatically shrink following a diagnosis,” Prather states. “If anything, this is the point in one’s life where they need the most support from others as they begin to adjust to a new normal.”

Often, adds Prather, friends and even family may not know how to properly respond. The fear of saying something wrong or upsetting can cause them to pull back and prevent them from reaching out to their loved one.

“It’s natural for people to retreat when they have a friend who is diagnosed with a terminal health condition,” Prather continues. “They struggle with wanting to help, yet not knowing the best way to do it. So, they can end up distancing themselves from the situation.”

This is the time that can be the most important for a person to know that their friends and loved ones are there to provide support.

“I hear all the time from hospice patients that they simply want to be treated the same as they were before. They still have the same interests and hobbies they had prior to their diagnosis; illness doesn’t immediately change that,” Prather says.

“If you have a friend whom you regularly meet with for coffee or book club and they learn that they have a life-threatening condition, most of the time, they will want to continue being included in their existing social routines. Reach out; let them know that you are here for them and that you can continue to hold your get-togethers. The last thing any of us would want to do is to seem like we are excluding a person going through an extremely difficult situation, and these social events can provide stability and serve as a welcome distraction,” Prather says.

Prather mentions his own father as an example. Richard Prather has a rare degenerative muscle disease. While he has mobility issues and uses a wheelchair, he is otherwise healthy. Prior to being diagnosed, he was an avid woodworker and had a work shop where he could do his projects. With some adjustments to accommodate his condition, he is still able to continue the hobby that he loves. His disease doesn’t define him.

nullDon’t Want to Bother

Another common theme is the reluctance to take offers of help. “It’s very common for us to say, ‘Let me know if I can help,’ or ‘What do you need me to do?,’ when a friend or loved one is diagnosed. Many patients, and many of us in general, hesitate to take up our friends and families on those offers for help,” Prather says.

Prather says while it is good to extend those offers, it can be more beneficial to be more detailed. Provide specific opportunities for them to accept your help. Some examples:

  • “I know that you have chemotherapy treatments coming up, I’d be happy to pick your kids up from school and take them to their soccer practices.”
  • “I’m going to the grocery store tomorrow; can I pick anything up for you?”
  • “I made a big batch of spaghetti for dinner, would you like me to bring some over for you and your family?”
  • “We’re supposed to get snow tonight; I can come over and clear your driveway for you.”

These offers can make it easier for them to accept because you have provided them with a clear picture of how you would like to assist.

My Life has Changed, but I’m Still the Same

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, it’s OK to let people know if you’re struggling with your feelings. It’s alright to take up their offers of help and to tell them exactly what they can do to assist. You’ll find that everyone will react differently to your news, and those who have gone through something similar with their loved ones, will tend to be more emphatic and understanding.

“Let your friends and loved ones know that you still want to be involved in your activities, hobbies and your social outings. Maintaining a semblance of normalcy is so vital when you are facing these types of health challenges,” Prather said.

He recalls one patient’s words as being a good lesson: “I didn’t ask for it to happen, but I’m dealing with it the best I can, and I will not be defined by this disease.”

What you can do to help someone who’s recently been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition:

  • Remember, they are still the same person they were before their diagnosis
  • Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing, your effort is appreciated
  • Be more proactive in reaching out, they may not want to “bother” anyone
  • Stay in contact with them periodically, so that they know someone is still thinking of them
  • Don’t make assumptions, don’t leave them out of social invitations, reach out to them
  • Make your offers of help more detailed and specific, so that it makes it easier for them to accept
  • Simply sending a card, email or text can mean so much
  • Sometimes, no words are necessary, a hug or holding hands can be just as healing

Touching Lives

Touching Lives is a free publication offered by UnityPoint Hospice. Read this article and more in the latest issue. Receive a complimentary copy today to learn more about hospice care.