6 Things You Can Do For Your Chronically Ill Friend

Warning: contains GIFs

Last time, I shared some of the unexpected things you shouldn’t say to someone with a chronic illness. Today, I’ll let you know a few favours you could do for your sick pal to show your support.

1. Stay in their lives

You’d think this one would be a no-brainer, but it never fails to amaze me how many people exit stage right when they learn you have a chronic illness. One of the most common themes I see in chronic illness support groups and websites is coping with the loss of loved ones who choose to withdraw their support.

A man from The Simpsons pretends to walk down stairs behind a bench.
“You have a chronic illness? Er…ooh, I’m needed in the basement!”

I’m not quite sure what goes through people’s heads when they desert someone in need, but if I found out a friend was diagnosed with a devastating illness, my first thought wouldn’t be: “wow, my friend has lost her health, her job, her study, bodily autonomy, and everything she holds dear. You know what she needs right now? COMPLETE SOCIAL ISOLATION.”

Stick around, send that text, make a phone call, and show you give a fuck.

2. Put your fear to the side

I get it, chronic illnesses are scary. Hell, I wake up every morning in a panic, terrified of the day to come. But I have to deal with it and get on with my day, because I literally have no choice. So no matter how scared you are of a loved one’s illness, you need to put that fear to the side and support them.

A woman mimes crying.
Please, tell me more about how you’re terrified of disability.

If you have a genuine aversion to disability – and many do! – it might be worth examining your ableist attitudes and checking them at the door.

3. Use the Ring Theory

Sometimes it can be difficult to know just what to say to your loved one who has been diagnosed with a chronic illness. The Ring Theory was devised by psychologist and breast cancer patient Susan Silk as a guide to dealing with trauma. Susan writes:

“Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?”

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it.”

A diagram of the Ring Theory.
There are lots of images of Ring Theory out there, but I had to include this one because WTF is a lookie loo?? Does it have something to do with toilets?! Source.

For example, let’s say your partner is diagnosed with cancer. What you don’t do is come home from work every night and complain to them about how hard it is for you that they have cancer, and they just aren’t the same fun person anymore. Save your complaints for your closest circle out, which may be your parents or siblings. In turn, they cannot complain to you about the impact of your partner’s cancer – they can turn to their next circle of support for that. Comfort in, dump out.

Of course, you can and should discuss the impact of chronic illness with your affected loved ones, in an open and mutually respectful manner. But don’t use them as your emotional dumping ground.

4. Offer help

Donuts

One of the things about having a disability is, well, it dis-ables you. I can’t possibly do all the things an able-bodied person can, and require the help of others to get by. Many disabled people, myself included, are completely ineligible for government support such as carers, meaning we rely on our friends and family to complete everyday tasks. Even those who do qualify often do not receive adequate aid for their needs, and still require the assistance of a strong social support network.

Please, ask if you can help. Offer to do the groceries. Bring round donuts (please, please bring round donuts). Take your ill friend out to the shops or a cafe. We may not say yes this time round, but offers of help are always appreciated.

5. Do your research

No, not the kind of “research” which leads you to conclude that apricot kernels cure cancer, vaccines are actually part of a government mass murder conspiracy, and a daily dose of colloidal silver will cure what ails you. Take the time to find out more about your friend’s lived experiences with illness, perhaps by talking to someone with the condition, checking an aggregated source like Wikipedia, or browsing a patient advocacy group’s website.

Paul Karason, Argyria patient with bright blue skin.
Paul Karason suffered from a condition known as argyria – blue skin caused by the ingestion of colloidal silver. Yes, drinking colloidal silver will turn your skin blue.

Making the effort to understand your friend’s symptoms is an excellent way to show that you really care about them and are actively interested in their life – just keep that colloidal silver to yourself.

(For those interested in educating themselves on ME/CFS, try my Dummies’ Guide to ME/CFS, the Solve ME/CFS Initiative fact sheets, A Sudden Illness by Laura Hillenbrand, or Jennifer Brea’s TED talk, What happens when you have a disease doctors can’t diagnose.)

6. Say “I believe you”

Oh, sweet, sweet validation. How I crave you. If I had a dollar for the number of times people tried to prove me wrong about my illness, I’d be able to fund ME/CFS research forever and STILL have enough leftover to dive into my piles of money, Scrooge McDuck style. Just listening to your chronically ill friend and validating their beliefs is one of the kindest things you can do for them.

Scrooge McDuck dives into his pile of money.
#ducklifegoals

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

15 thoughts on “6 Things You Can Do For Your Chronically Ill Friend”

  1. This is an excellent post Siobhan and you are spot on, on every point. Your #5 point of research is particularly true and could save a lot of people a lot of grief. I need to understand the illnesses of family and friends and I hate it when people tell you that some magical cure which hasn’t been trialed correctly will cure all of your problems. Weird people can come out of the woodwork with magical cures and I bet you have had a few. I hope you are having a better day. xxxxx

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  2. Excellent post lady! And thanks. Always useful to have some good tips to use, and although I don’t have any chronically ill friends – apart from you ❤️- it’s also very relevant to dealing with terminal or other illnesses too. Appreciated.

    Also: I believe you, I admire you and I respect you to the max.

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  3. Yes, donuts are an essential thing to bring when visiting a friend with a chronic illness. 😀 To quote Homer Simpson, ‘…mmm, donuts’.
    I agree with your first point too, although my experience is slightly different. I have lots of people in my life who know about my CF and who know how sick I can get, but since announcing I’ve was being listed for transplant, and then having the transplant, there are some who I thought would have at least commented on those statuses who I still haven’t heard from nearly 4 months on from the first announcement. The whole transplant journey has definitely shown me who my real friends are – those who bothered to comment or send a message or card, etc are the ones who deserve my friendship in return.

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    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Chantelle. Having a lung transplant is such a huge thing in itself, let alone having the CF on top, that you’d think people would be lending their support at this critical time. You are right in saying that times like this prove who your true friends are!

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  4. Thank you for this and your previous post. I plan to share them with my family as we also have a seriously ill person in the family. I wish I was close enough to bring you doughnuts … For us to share of course! And yes, we have “lookie loos” in Canada – those people who show down at the scene of an accident to an almost stop just to see the bodies or injured – a disgusting habit.

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  5. All this is so true! And it can be applied to any “bad” thing in life.
    The “good” point is that after whatever the bad thing is, you really know who are your friends and who you can rely on. Even if they are few they are the best 🙂
    I wish I knew about the ring theory when I lost my baby, I would have sent this to my mother in law who complained to me and my husband that she lost her grandson. Yes great, I know…
    People are silly sometimes! Thanks to you I will know what to answer to them next time.
    Belief is sooooo important! Just to say : I believe you 🙂

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    1. You are right, trials show who your true friends are. I am truly sorry that you lost your baby and had to endure such insensitivity. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking that must have been.

      Thank you for your belief ❤️

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