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Practical Ways to Help a Seriously Ill Loved One

Updated on March 3, 2012
Flowers really can brighten your day
Flowers really can brighten your day

Finding Out the Bad News

“Thanks for letting me know,” you might say as you hang up the phone. You sit and wonder how your friend is doing. What should you do? The person who just called you doesn’t seem to have any ideas either. You contemplate picking up the phone again, but decide against calling your friend, for now. “I wouldn’t know what to say anyway,” you tell yourself.

Every year thousands and thousands of people are diagnosed with a serious illness. For example, according to the American Cancer Society more than 12 million people in America have been diagnosed with cancer and still living with it. (http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerBasics/cancer-prevalence)

About 200 people per week are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and it is estimated that there are 400,000 people in the United States living with it. (http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/what-we-know-about-ms/faqs-about-ms/index.aspx .

Approximately 5.4 million Americans are believed to currently have Alzheimer’s Disease, according to recent estimates by the Alzheimer’s Association. (http://www.alz.org/documents_custom/2011_Facts_Figures_Fact_Sheet.pdf)

This is just a sampling of the many serious illnesses and diseases affecting millions of people each year. Each one of these people needs friends who are willing to show how much they care.

I remember how I felt the first time I saw my mom after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her back was to me, and she was trying in vain to get something out of one her bags in that bleak hospital room. She looked so thin. When she turned around, I just stood there. I felt a sense of panic, wondering what I should do or say.

A huge cloud of awkwardness enveloped us. Everything about her, her health, and our relationship was different; and I didn’t know how to act anymore. I felt confused. Finally, I did what I had wanted to do all along—I walked to her bedside and hugged her for a long time.

Over time I learned that I didn't need to treat my mom differently than before because all she wanted from me was me. I realize even more now how much she needed her family and friends to support her.

No one wants to face difficult times alone. What your loved one wants most from you right now is your friendship and love.

Even if you do not know exactly what to do for your loved one at first, it’s okay. The first step is just to be willing to do something. Then, call or visit your friend. Spending time with someone speaks volumes of your love. She’ll know you still value her.

Listen, listen, and listen some more. Sometimes silence is best. Your presence can oftentimes be such a healing balm to your loved one. One word of caution: refrain from giving pat answers or advice, especially if you've never been diagnosed with a serious illness before.

Don't worry - you don't have to make gourmet meals!
Don't worry - you don't have to make gourmet meals!

Top Suggestions for Helping


  • Bring complete dinners for your friend or loved one's family and/or organize an entire meal schedule for a longer period of time. (Try to deliver food in plastic, throw-away containers so they do not need to be returned.) If one person can be the designated organizer of this amazing help, it's best. Look at free websites that help organize group events or efforts easily (such as http://www.slyreply.com/)
  • Help with housework.
  • Help with yard work.
  • Run errands and/or do shopping.
  • Offer to take care of your friend’s children.
  • Bring a favorite magazine or book for the patient to read.
  • Send a care package. (It could include a special memento, a CD of music, an encouraging talk on tape, a book, a framed picture of the two of you, or other small gift.)
  • Send cards -- e-cards are wonderful, but a handwritten note that is delivered to a mailbox is such a treat.
  • Help your friend look and feel nice. (You could wash her hair, brush and curl it. Give her a manicure or pedicure or a gift certificate for a massage.)
  • Offer to help with insurance/medical bills filing.
  • Fill up your friend’s car with gas and have it washed and waxed.
  • Offer to go along to a doctor's appointment or outpatient therapy appointment. (You may want to bring a book to read so that your friend does not feel obligated to talk with you the whole time.)
  • Offer to write for her. You could write out thank you notes or other paperwork as she dictates to you.
  • Create a special basket of lotions and personal care products. (In the hospital, one's skin can be constantly dry. Be sure to check beforehand if the person is allergic or sensitive to any perfumes, dyes or other ingredients.)
  • Help your friend stay in touch with local and national news. (Send them links, videos, and possibly newsletters from a local organization they like to be involved with).


Loving support from people who care is essential for anyone coping with a serious illness. Its value is immeasurable. All of us can make a concrete difference in someone else's life through our presence and actions...today.

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    • profile image

      Ania 2 years ago

      You all are truly amazing! Every time I watch this video of James it makes me happy and sad all at the same time. Happy that this moenmt was captured for his mom and dad and sad that James is no longer here. The moenmts that were captured were beautiful. What a sweet heart for all that James was going through you sure wouldn't know he was in pain. I pray for his mom and dad daily and I am so glad you all were there to capture this moenmt for them. What a tribute to James!!!

    • Laurel Brunvoll profile image
      Author

      Laurel Brunvoll 5 years ago

      stephhicks68, thank you for your comments. I've gleaned this information from watching others and learning from them--as my family and I walked this road. My heart goes out to anyone who has to suffer. All the best to you, Laurel

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      You have covered this difficult topic in a very sensitive way. Often its not knowing what to say or do, but just being there that makes all the difference. Best, Steph

    • Laurel Brunvoll profile image
      Author

      Laurel Brunvoll 5 years ago

      Thank you, billybuc. Throughout my family's difficult experiences (my dad also ended up being diagnosed with kidney cancer after my mom died), I feel fortunate to have had so many people caring for us. My greatest wish is to pass on that "help" to others. I also appreciate your kind comments on my writing--it is something that I truly love to do.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This is not only a lovely hub but one so helpful for many out there who are experiencing what you described. Welcome to HubPages; I do believe we have a very good writer who just joined us! Thumbs up and great job!