What do you do when your loved one becomes suddenly ill?

When someone you love who has always been healthy and a go-getter suddenly takes ill, it can be very scary and confusing for both of you. It can be particularly scary and confusing for your loved one. Your loved one, while healing, is also experiencing grief/loss, and not just over the loss of health. Even as adults, we can sometimes feel like bad things won’t ever happen to us. Feeling one’s mortality up close, and suddenly, is life changing.

When someone we love is hurting, our first impulse is to help them to the best of our ability. However, our altruistic desire to help can actually be a source of harm for our loved one.

Here are ten tips on how you can help a loved one through a period of illness:

1. Let your loved one feel free to feel and to discuss what she feels. Sometimes talking it out helps the person start to make sense of what happened.

2. Be mindful of asking, “What happened?” Your loved one has probably answered this question multiple times, not just to her doctors but also to family members and friends. It can be emotionally exhausting to retell the story for others. Retelling the story, when not initiated by your loved one, may also force her to relive the experience, causing even more trauma. Allow your loved one to share how when or if she desires.

3. Don’t discount/minimize her feelings. We can’t understand the emotional trauma she is facing. It doesn’t help her to hear you compare her experience to yours or that of others you know. She knows there are people who had a worse hospital course or who have suffered long-term effects, but right now, that doesn’t matter to her. This is not helpful.

4. Your loved one is likely going through the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial and isolation. “This didn’t really happen to me; the doctor is mistaken. I don’t really have disease X.”
  2. Anger. “I’m angry that this happened to me. It’s not fair. I pray/fast/tithe/volunteer/exercise etc. Why me?!”
  3. Bargaining. “God, if you make me better, I promise I will live differently.”
  4. Depression. “I am deeply sad/depressed over what happened.”
  5. Acceptance. “Ok, I know I have disease X, and I’m going to beat it/do whatever I need to do to live my best life in spite of it.”

Sometimes people can move through these stages appropriately and successfully on their own, and sometimes they need professional help. Encourage counseling – but gently.

5. Refrain from making plans/suggestions for your loved one unless she asks. Examples of advice to avoid include recommending a certain “miracle” cure, or a guru’s latest book, or a weight loss program. Your loved one is just trying to live through this and is trying to make sense of what happened to her. She may be overwhelmed by your well-intentioned advice. Let your loved one lead this conversation whenever or if ever she is ready.

6. Ask your loved one what she needs. Keep in mind that for many go-getters, asking for help may be difficult as they’re used to doing so much for themselves, so it may take a bit of time for her to voice her needs. She may need help with cooking/household chores, grocery shopping or transportation. She may need you to visit with her. She may need thoughts or prayers. Whatever it is that she needs, if you’re able to offer help, please know that it is greatly appreciated.

7. Be understanding if the person doesn’t immediately return phone calls or texts, or if she doesn’t respond if you are reaching out to her via social media. She may simply be too exhausted to do so, particularly if she’s receiving communication from multiple people. Trust that your loved one is grateful for your concern, even if she is unable to express that right now.

8. Refrain from sharing your loved one’s illness with others unless specifically asked. Being ill can cause a person to feel as if she has totally lost control over her life. Allow her to control at least this.

9. When visiting, follow your loved one’s cues. She may not be able to tolerate loud noises, lengthy or in-depth conversation, bright lights or even touch. Don’t be offended; just be understanding.

10. If you’re a primary caregiver for your loved one, make sure to nourish yourself with healthy food, sleep, water, stress relief/management, counseling if warranted, etc. You can’t help her if you’re not taking care of yourself. An empty well yields no water.

This experience may change your loved one, and your relationship with your loved one, forever. These tips can help you to help your loved one to cope and to heal as best as possible.

Natalie Santiago is a pediatrician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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