We are all quite familiar with the social standards of dealing with transient illness. If a friend comes down with the flu, you can bring them chicken noodle soup and kick back with some Netflix with them for a few days while the medicines do their thing. When we have a friend diagnosed with a chronic illness, however, things might not be so simple. It is in moments like these it is most important that we do not abandon our friends. Living with a chronic illness is never going to be easy, but a good support system can go a long way. If you are unsure of how to interact with your friend concerning their condition, here are some tips that will help you be a caring, helpful friend to your loved one.
1. "I believe you."
Often chronic illness, including mental illness, is also referred to as an "invisible illness." People who live with chronic illnesses tend to face doubt, both from their peers and within themselves. When someone looks healthy, it is hard to believe that their feelings don't match their appearances. Expressing belief and empathy regardless of whether or not a person "looks sick" is probably the most important thing a friend can do.
2. "Do you want company?"
It is nearly impossible for a person with chronic illness to predict whether they will be feeling up to going to that party with you next weekend, or even tonight. It's important to understand that maybe your quality time together would be better spent at their place instead. They might also need some alone time. Reassure them that you are available to meet them when and where they are most comfortable.
3. "No problem!"
One of the feelings that comes with chronic illness is the overbearing sense of being a burden or a nuisance to loved ones. If your friend with chronic illness has to cancel plans or ask for a favor, know that they would not bring it up if it were not absolutely necessary. Letting them know that you are not bothered and you do not hold it against them will alleviate guilt and reinforce your unconditional friendship.
4. "I cannot understand what you are going through, but I care."
The key difference between sympathy and empathy is the way we approach relating to the person who is seeking love. It is important to let a person with chronic illness express their feelings and struggles without belittling them or comparing them to other things. A helpful friend would never say things like, "At least ..." or, "It could be worse." Giving your friend the space to express their feelings and feel like they are being listened to is key to helping them cope.
Sometimes the best thing a friend can do is give a hug and lend an ear. If you do not know what to say in a situation, that's OK. It is likely that your friend is not looking for some magical tidbit of wisdom from you, but rather a shoulder to lean on and a familiar presence to comfort them in their time of struggle.
With these things in mind, it is also important to remember that your friend's illness is not the focus of your friendship. It is a condition of their life, but not who they are. As with any friendship, your connection with the person should be focused on what you love about them and the experiences that you share. You might have to make adjustments and alter plans, but your friend is first and foremost the person you love. With proper consideration and compassion, the friendship will be meaningful and impactful for both of you.