Have you ever crossed paths with someone fighting a serious illness — whether a friend, relative, classmate, neighbour or even a stranger? Did you feel uncomfortable and unsure about how to act and what to say? You’re not alone.
As executive director of Chai Lifeline Canada, a charity that helps support families of children who suffer from life-threatening or lifelong illnesses, I have seen even the most well-meaning people exhibit this discomfort time and again. It’s a natural reaction to what is perceived to be an unnatural situation.
Yet, in reality, sickness is anything but unnatural. It can happen to anyone at any time, and our interactions with those going through a medical challenge can actually help or hinder their experience. Here is what I have found to be the three biggest mistakes people make when encountering someone with an illness and how to avoid them:
DISCUSSING THE ILLNESS
People experiencing an illness know that they are ill. You don’t need to remind them by talking about it — no matter how close you are. Don’t point out any apparent changes, such as a cancer patient’s loss of hair or the fact that the person is in a wheelchair. Ask how they’re doing, but then move onto other topics. If they want to talk about their illness, let them bring it up themselves. The key thing to keep in mind is to treat the person the way you did before the illness. If you were good friends, keep up the friendship, including joking around. If you weren’t good friends, don’t start acting overly friendly just because they are sick. Nobody likes to feel like a charity case. Offering concrete assistance — such as asking if you can send dinner one night or do their carpool for a little while — without mentioning the illness, shows that you want to help.
TALKING VERSUS LISTENING
Often people visiting someone who is sick tend to do more talking than listening — perhaps a reflection of their discomfort. Sharing stories or jokes by trying to brighten someone’s day may be relevant, but it’s just as important to listen. People going through a difficult time appreciate feeling supported and understood, and one of the most effective ways of ensuring that they do is by lending an open ear of empathy. Be an active listener, and if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at all or simply nod your head. Anyone going through a hard time appreciates validation of their feelings and by listening, you are doing just that and helping them feel better in the process. It’s even OK to say things such as: “I don’t know what to say or do to make things better,” or — echoing the words of R. Arnold — “if you are too tired to speak, sit next to me, because I, too, am fluent in silence.”
AVOIDING THE PERSON
Despite their best intentions, some people don’t know what to say to — or how to act toward — a friend who is sick, so they may choose to avoid the person. However, nothing is more hurtful to someone going through an illness than being dodged by others. It’s critical to focus on the fact that your friend is still the same person who just happens to be going through a challenging time, and needs to continue to feel valued. Reach out to your friend and try to normalize the situation as much as possible, finding creative ways to connect the way you did before. For example, if you used to play hockey together, visit your friend in the hospital or at his home and watch hockey on TV. At the same time, there may be occasions when someone doesn’t want to be seen in a sickly or frail state and may decline visitors. If this is the case, it’s critical to respect your friend’s wishes and not to take it personally. Even if your friend doesn’t respond to your outreach, sending a cute video, joke or “thinking of you” text reminds them that they’re not alone. Put your own feelings aside and stay focused on the needs of your friend, recognizing that everyone wants to maintain their dignity.
Mordechai Rothman is the executive director of North York-based Chai Lifeline Canada, a charity that helps support the families of children who suffer from life-threatening or lifelong illnesses. The organization provides dozens of free initiatives to help give children stability and their families a sense of normalcy, including counselling, tutoring for children missing extended periods of school, family retreats, sibling programs similar to that of “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” and summer camps for kids.