So, you've just found out that someone you love has been diagnosed with a critical/chronic illness such as cancer, and you are at a loss for what to say or do.
You're afraid that you may say the wrong thing, and you are terrified of upsetting them or somehow making it worse. In my work as a bereavement therapist, I am often asked for advice on how to cope with this very situation because for most of us we feel helpless.
We all want to be helpful and supportive but fear that our actions may be either too much or not enough. It would be easy if when the person told you about their diagnosis they then handed you a pamphlet that outlined for you their needs; a how-to guide for loved ones. This doesn't often happen -- and in my experience has never happened. Hopefully, I can provide you with some tips in this article based on my work with these individuals and their families that will simulate that longed-for pamphlet.
The truth is, you already know what to do you just don't realize it. Odds are you have already shared some stressful moments with this person; you simply need to do the same things you did then. The situation may seem more serious but support, comfort and caring always feel the same.
In case that last bit of advice didn't cover everything here are a few more suggestions to keep in mind when helping a loved one cope with their diagnosis.
THEY HAVEN'T CHANGED: Your loved one is still the same person they were before they told you about their diagnosis. They may not feel as well, and they may not be physically able to do all the things they did before depending on the treatments they are receiving, but believe me, they are who they have always been. I have heard it echoed over and over again in my work that those individuals coping with cancer or critical illness just want to be treated like everyone else. They want to be viewed as a person and not as a diagnosis. Yes, they are sick and yes, they may have a long battle ahead of them that they may not win but they are well aware of this already. They just want you do the same things with them that you have always done; laugh with them, cry with them -- but most importantly just be with them.
GIVE THEM TIME: This is a huge adjustment. The life that they once had is now changed based on their diagnosis and treatment regimen. Acceptance does not come quickly for most and so you need to be understanding of where they are in their process. My clients have often said that they do not want to hear "everything is going to be OK" or "you're going to be fine." They want to be able to feel what they need to feel without judgment. An initial response of anger or sadness is normal but passes with time. Ride the wave of emotions with them and support them through it by allowing them to talk openly and honestly about the way that they feel.
EDUCATE YOURSELF: Once you know the specific diagnosis, learn more about it and about the treatments. Increase your understanding of the illness, the prognosis and the treatment options. Do this so that they don't have to tell you everything. Chances are you are not the only person they have told or will tell and they may not want to repeat every little detail. They may also at some point come to you and ask for your opinion on the treatment they are receiving. It is helpful if you have a basic understanding of the diagnosis ahead of time.
DON'T DISAPPEAR: A major concern for a lot of my clients has been that their friends won't be able to handle their diagnosis, that they will be there in the beginning, but as soon as it gets difficult they will slowly stop calling or coming to visit. Or they will offer support initially but then won't follow-up long term. Be a constant figure in their lives through phone calls or emails or text messages. Send cards to say you're thinking of them if you aren't able to visit that often. Also, don't cut them out of the activities that you always did together. Include them and let them decide if they can participate or not. On the other side of this, don't overdo it.
BE YOURSELF: If you remember nothing else; remember this! Be who you have always been to this person. So many things in their lives have changed or are about to change make sure that you are not one of them! Be the funny, serious, sarcastic, critical, optimistic and (insert any character trait you would like) person you have always been. They will love you even more for it.
Amanda Romaniello, LPC is Family Centers Coordinator of Clinical Services for Darien and New Canaan. Romaniello also oversees clinical work at the Center for HOPE, Family Centers' program for critical illness and bereavement support. Serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan and Westchester County, NY, Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.