Health Advocate Blog

How to support a loved one facing a serious diagnosis

When a family member, friend or colleague shares that they have been diagnosed with a serious medical illness or condition, you may be unsure of the best way to help. It is important to be supportive but also sensitive to their needs and feelings through this challenging time. There are a number of other things you can do (and not do) to help your loved one know you are there for them. Remember, each person is different in how they react to their diagnosis and what types of help and support may be most appreciated, but this is a helpful guide to get started.

How to help

  • Bring food – When someone is facing life-altering news, food is likely not top of mind, but nourishment is key. Drop off easy-to-heat dishes (in containers they don’t need to return), buy groceries for them, or even pack their kids’ lunches once a week. If possible, check with the person’s caregiver or family to see if they have any treatment-related food sensitivities. And keep in mind that they may not be up for a visit when you bring by meals, so don’t plan to stick around unless they are up for a chat. Your kindness speaks volumes.
  • Stay in touch– People diagnosed with a serious medical condition may feel very alone. Let them know you are thinking of them by sending emails, cards, text messages or calling them from time to time. If they don’t answer or respond right away, know they got it and just may not be up for talking right now, but it means a lot. If you are close enough, offer to accompany them to an appointment or go to yoga together if they’re interested.
  • Organize a group gift or support– Get together with other co-workers, friends or neighbors to ensure the person and their family receives consistent support. Oftentimes, everyone shows up immediately to offer help, but that tends to fade away with time. The person needs and will appreciate ongoing love and support. Whether it’s a care basket of items that might be useful or taking turns to drop off meals or babysit, this helps keep the momentum going. If the person is a colleague and your company allows this, donate unused paid time off to give them the flexibility and opportunity to receive treatment without being stressed about returning to work.
  • Follow their lead – Be a good listener and determine what the person is in the mood for that day. From jokes and gossip to a shoulder to cry on, the person is experiencing a slew of emotions, so tune into her needs to be the best support.
  • Join their fight– Research and participate in relevant organizations related to their condition by starting a team in his or her honor for a local fundraising event.

Things to avoid

  • Asking how you can help– The person is overwhelmed as it is. Saying “Let me know how I can help,” will often result in nothing. Take charge and offer something specific or talk directly with the person’s caregiver or family to take on a direct task that will help. Every little bit counts.
  • Don’t compare or scare– Remember that each person’s experience with their specific diagnosis will be different. Telling them about your brother-in-law’s cousin’s neighbor is not helpful and can either provide false hope or scare them. Keep the focus on them and their experience.
  • Forget the person before the disease– Even if they are in the middle of this big and scary thing, and don’t be afraid to acknowledge that, remember the person has a life before, during and afterward. Ask about their kid’s game or if they watched the latest episode of their favorite show. They are not defined by their diagnosis.

Remember, just being there for the person is the first step to creating a supportive network to help them during this difficult journey.