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05.18.2015 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

How to Support Friends With A Seriously Ill Family Member

Today I wish I were God. I want to be able to wave a magic wand, snap my fingers, wish upon a star—I want to do anything that will make my friend Jonathan healthy again.

Truth is, I’m helpless. Prayer is all I know to do. Yes, I trust in the sovereignty of God. Really, I do. But, I also have experience with life. I know that sometimes things happen. Things that I just don’t understand—will never understand.

When it does, it’s like the sound of shattered glass poolside. We turn with shock and dismay, but we don’t know how to pick up the pieces of all that’s gone wrong.

Wasn’t it just a blog ago that I wrote about Jonathan’s new van and the joy of his laughter? Now, a few weeks later, he’s seriously ill. Blink your eyes, and the script of life is rewritten.

Jonathan’s a warrior. I know he’s in the best of care, and everything’s going to turn out right.

Still. There’s this messy stuff in between. This limbo of support when you don’t know what to do, so you either do too much or nothing at all.

Here’s What Little I Do Know

I’ve been where Jonathan and his mom are. I know the fear, the pain, and the anxiety. It’s all I can do to keep myself from camping outside the buzz of the hospital door.

Support, however, often looks like restraint. More often than not, I want to do the opposite: Advise, Control, Cry, and Stay.

For anyone who struggles, as I do, with how much to give and when to step back, I offer the four L’s of limbo support: Listen, Love, Laugh, and Leave:

Listen

Tune into the needs of the family. Listen with your heart, not your mind. The mind wants to fix. In a serious medical situation, there’re typically one or two family members making the key decisions. They appreciate your support, but it’s often difficult for them to directly tell you what they need simply because they don’t yet know.

Listen, ask relevant questions, and you’ll know how to best support them. Beware of any tendency to be the all-knowing hero. Remember, you’re not the supporting actor in this movie. They are.

Love

Love can look like cards, flowers, texts, or waiting room excursions. In an ICU scenario, it’s often prayers. More importantly, it’s respecting the family’s need for privacy and their need for quiet time alone with the person who is ill.

Also, love is unconditional. There’s no place for family squabbles or power struggles when someone is seriously ill. Offer your support, maybe even your services, but don’t let your ego get in the way if the primary care giver declines your offer. It’s not personal. The people closest to the patient are just trying to get through the day-to-day challenges. Sometimes love is more about being than it is about doing anything specific.

Laugh

Even in the midst of illness, there’s a time for appropriate laughter. Don’t minimize the situation, but the endless waiting for answers can sometimes be eased by intentional levity.

Stories of happier times can help do this. Just be careful that they’re the “right” stories. When our son Michael was critical, we had a friend who showed up each evening at the hospital to tell us about his daily golf game. His stories were irrelevant and insensitive. My husband eventually had to ask him to stop coming to the hospital.

Laughter of shared experiences can ease the tension and even rekindle hope.

Leave

If the patient’s health takes a turn for the worse, it may be time for you to leave. The family now needs to stay extremely focused. Their energy may be waning when they need it most. In other words, visiting hours are over unless the family says otherwise.

Visits from a constant stream of friends and relatives can be taxing. There’s a lot of information to process and decisions to be made. The family has no energy to entertain visitors. Having to repeat the circumstances surrounding the person’s hospitalization over and over can zap the energy of the patient and the family.

A few simple questions could prove invaluable: “How can I best support you now? Do you want me to stay or leave?”

One final thing to consider. Recovery from a serious illness is a long process. Chances are the patient and the family will need your support more once they return home. That’s when the crowd disappears, and the family is left behind to pick up the shattered glass.

Every critical situation is unique. How you offer support is particular to your role in the family and your relationship with the person who is ill. Sometimes it’s hard for those of us on the outer rim to know how to support people we care about. When in doubt, ask.

For now, as of this writing, my friend Jonathan is off breathing support and on the road to recovery.  I sing, Alleluia! And, I continue to pray.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. May 18, 2015