When Your Friend Receives a Bad Diagnosis

By Kate Bradley

When a friend receives a devastating diagnosis, your role as a friend changes completely.  Support, caring, and simple friendship all become critical to her day-to-day spirits and long-term condition. Here is a look at exactly how you can help a friend with a major illness.

A serious diagnosis can and often does bring life to a screeching halt. Suddenly, your friend is carrying the enormous, and multifaceted burden of major illness. What should she tell family, how will she pay medical expenses that insurance doesn't cover, and how will she handle with tremendous stress, anxiety, and fear of the unknown that she is sure to face? as her friend, you feel useless, helpless, and lost. How can you help your friend? How do you preserve your friendship? What do you even say?

None of these questions has a tried-and-true answer. Some friends may want you to cry with them. Others may want you to help cheer them up. Still others may shut you out completely (more on that in a minute). Some may be comfortable with silence, while others are terrified by it. The most important thing to keep in mind is that as long as you're there, you care, and you are trying, your friend will feel loved and comforted.

Before you can help your friend, however, it's crucial that you understand and fully embrace the emotional burden. It is likely that being a good friend to a sick friend will be mentally and perhaps even physically draining. It is sadly common that even the closest of friends can go MIA when serious illness strikes. No one likes having to face the painful truths associated with a grim diagnosis. No one wants to acknowledge the possibility of death, permanent disability, or long-term physical hardship. Many loyal, caring women have found themselves shying away from the aid of a sick friend simply because they don't know what to do or say. It's perfectly normal (and very tempting) to want to drop off the radar when the going gets tough, but your friend needs your strength so that she can be strong too.

So what does it take to be there for your friend during this difficult time?

Your friend has been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, something that has rocked her whole world. Let her feel free to share her feelings with you in whatever way feels natural. Let her scream when she needs to, and then let her cry when she needs to do this as well. The, when she wants to reminisce about better times, simply be there to lend your ear.

Making Your Presence Known
As mentioned above, it isn't uncommon for some friends to shy away when major illness strikes. Situations that involve health and mortality are very scary to many, and instead of facing these situations, many simply ignore them and hope that they resolve themselves. This is why it is even more important that your friend be reassured of your support for her.

If you can't visit her in the hospital, call or text to check in on her. If she's at home, drop by with a covered dish or her favorite magazine. When you head to the grocery store, offer to run her errands or pick up dinner. Be a consistent presence and reiterate your concern and desire to help in any way you can. Most important, allow your friend to dictate how much company and support she needs.

Everyone handles a crisis differently, and thus a comparison between one person's reaction and another's just isn't meaningful. You may know of someone who worked every day of their chemotherapy, while your friend is so exhausted and nauseated while receiving hers that she can barely stand.

Similarly, be open to how your friend's responds to her diagnosis. Reactions to bad news range from impulsive, thrill-seeking behavior to sobbing uncontrollably for hours at a time. Your friend may cling to you or refuse to see you. The way that she chooses to react is her decision. The thing you can do for her is to simply respect it.

Taking a Supportive Role, Happily
Many friends are unintentionally guilty of sometimes feeling a bit stuck in the shadows when it comes to their friendship with their ill friend. They feel that they've been supportive and caring, and well, "Can we talk about me now please?" Unfortunately, a seriously ill friend is generally not able to be as good a friend to you as you are to her. Doctor appointments, bed rest, surgery, and spending time with family must take precedence. Come to terms with the reality that for the time being, other friends are your best bet when you want to complain about your boss.

Recognizing that You are Helping
Helplessness is an extremely common emotion among those with very sick friends. The thought that although you are doing all you can, it doesn't seem to be helping and your friend isn't improving, can be quite pervasive.

The truth is that you are probably helping more than you realize. According to the Mayo Clinic, strong, caring friendship enormously help individuals cope with trauma, reduce stress, and boost happiness. Fretting about your ineffectiveness will only put pressure on your friend.

We love this quote from Lisa Bonchek Adams, a metastatic cancer patient: “Being a compassionate person and a caring friend does not require personal experience that is identical to what the person is going through.” In other words, if you're already a good friend, keep at it. Your friend already knows you care for and love her. She knows you'll be there. Trust that she will show or tell you, in her own time, how you can ease her pain.

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