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Supporting Friends & Family During Illness

Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Parenting, Families, & the Community > Supporting Friends & Family During Illness


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Heard about a friend's illness - haven't seen her in a while

Jan 2008

Today at a playground I met an adult taking care of a child I thought I recognized. In the course of our conversation, the adult told me about some health issues that the child's mother was facing. If I identified the child correctly, the mother is an old friend of mine (not too close, somewhere on the friend/acquaintance border) whom I haven't seen in some time. I was planning to ask the child's name, but they left before I was able to. At any rate, I would very much like to get back in touch with my friend -- partly because I enjoy her company, and partly because if she's ill I'd like to help her in whatever way I can. However, I'm not sure how best to do this. Because her condition is one that some people might find stigmatizing, I don't know how she'd feel knowing that the other adult spoke to me about it. On the other hand, if I don't mention that I spoke to the other adult, it might be awkward if that person later realizes that I know the mom. I hope the wise and compassionate members of our community can help me decide how best to proceed. Many thanks. anon, please


Simply tell your friend that you were at the park recently and ran into so-and-so who mentioned that you were ill. Do you need to reveal that you know what exactly what the condition is? A
This seems like an easy one to me. Call the friend and say, ''I think I ran into your daughter with another adult at the park the other day, and it made me think of you.'' You don't have to say anything at all, yet, about the illness. First just reconnect, then feel out the territory. Anonymous
How to Help... How about simply calling her and saying she's been on your mind, your sorry it's been such a long time and ask how she's been. She may or may not want to open up to you right away whether or not she has a health problem, but if you're consistent and prove to be a good friend, then eventually, you'll find out what you need to know. Keeping Friends
Seems to me you don't have to mention the guy or what he said, just contact your friend and say that you saw a kid in the park who looked just like her kid, and it made you think of her. I wouldn't worry so much about the guy (and maybe it isn't her kid?). Though I'd wonder why he would be so free w/ stigmatizing information on someone else (another reason I would worry less about him). Why would it be awkward for the guy? If you're worried about that, is he someone you're likely to see again? If so, why not just ask him? Or tell him that you know the mom and she might be embarassed if she know that he'd shared the info. (something tells me there might be more to this story than you're sharing...)

Friend is ill and out of touch

March 2005

I just reconnected with an old friend whom I love dearly, but with whom I had no contact for about 7 years. Our break in contact was surprising and unexplained-- she had been living overseas and we corresponded regularly. Then, without warning there was no response, my letters were returned with no forwarding address. I tried some of her friends I had known, and they didn't know what had happened either. I searched high and low for her, to no avail. Finally she called me last summer and I was certain we'd get our friendship back on track. Then many more months followed, with no response to my frequent calls. Today I learned that she is actually quite ill, but know no details about what is going on. It apparently has been going on for at least a few years, and it's serious enough that she cannot work (she was previously very career focused, and I know this is a big deal for her.) She specifically told me she does not want to discuss it. I don't know what to do: I very much want to support her but don't know how. I feel like I just said all the wrong things. She said her hesitation to be in touch was mostly because of her depression related to her illness and her not wanting to make me sad because of it. I suspect it also may be difficult for her to talk with people in different life situations (I had three children during the time we were out of touch; she always wanted to remarry and have children. I would not say my life is perfect, but from her perspective it may seem that way.) I just ache for her and wish I could find a way to support her, but I'm so afraid I may not talk to her again. I have no idea what her illness is. I hate that she may be feeling alone during this. But I want to respect her privacy and feelings. Any words of advice? worried and far away.


The best thing you can do for your friend is to respect her wishes. People who are ill or dying sometimes feel as if they have little control in their lives and are doing their best to held themselves together. I recommend that you do as she asks, not ask her questions she doesn't want to answer and not demand responses from her in your communication. Your need to have a two way communication with her may not meet her needs. Perhaps communicating back to you is just too much for her to handle.

So, if you have your friend's best interests at heart (even 'though it is very difficult) perhaps you can do one of two things: 1) Send her notes by mail periodically to let her know you are thinking of her, or to remind her of a time in the past that you two had fun together, or to tell her something that you appreciate about her (and don't ask for a reply or expect one). or 2) Send her one note saying that she is in your thoughts and that she can call you any time she needs to. Sometimes the best thing we can do for those who we love and want to help, is to back off, not be so in-their-face, and love them silently from afar, without overburdening them. Focus on what she needs, and not on what you need. Anonymous


I have been in a similar situation. If your friend is seriously ill, then the top priority is to communicate in a way that she can take it in, and this means really listening to what she is saying. If you can work within her framework, there will be communication that is meaningful and you will feel better about it, her, everything. Just remember it's not about you. It's about her, and what will make things easier, more pleasant, more uplifting. Don't be a Pollyanna but don't download your life, don't expect her to get all involved in your personal issues.

Keep it light, consistent and responsive to what she is saying/writing. I found it does work, and there is a lot to be gained. I have tried to do all of the above and as a result feel a lot closer to a dear friend. anon


I think your post would make a wonderful letter. Send it to her. If she chooses not to respond, you have to honor her wishes. I think you'll hear from her. Go for it. IMHO, you have a good heart.

Friend's baby is seriously ill

Sept 2002

My good friend, who lives in Maryland, had a baby 4 weeks ago, and the baby is still in ICU with a very serious heart problem. I'm at a loss about how to help her through this. She's obviously very sad, as I would be, and I just don't know how I can be a good friend to her. I don't want to recommend a book for her to read about coping, or a therapist to help her through this. Rather, I am looking for gestures that I, personally, can do for her. Daily Letters? Constant calls? Occasional flower deliveries? None of these seem appropriate - but I just don't know. Does anyone have any advice about what a friend can do for another friend during this horrible time? Thank you in advance. Maryanne


My child spent almost 4 months in the Intensive Care Nursery, when he was born and I can remember how awkward it was to receive congratualtions and condolences at the same time. Looking back, I can say with certainty, that unless the baby's life is seriously in jeopardy, congratulations ARE in order, NOT condolences. An extended stay in an ICN is not at all unusual. Although it seemed at the time like we were there forever, there were plenty of babies who had been there longer. My point is, please give no condolences (unless the baby passes away.) Your friend needs all the optimism and support she can get. Keep every correspondance upbeat, basically pretending that you believe everything is going to be all right. Do not act like you feel sorry for her, because you want to minimize her feeling sorry for herself. Frequent letters, cards, flowers and phone calls are a very good idea, keeping in mind that she is probably exhausted physically and emotionally. Be there for her through these dark days. It is extremely tough to have an infant with medical problems, but we all make it through it somehow. Have faith in medical technology. Leslie
I can't tell you specifically how to help her, but I can say (having had a seriously ill husband) that you want to make sure you are there for her, in whatever form she needs. Sometimes that is just visiting and taking care of the house maintenance, ordering meals for her to be delivered to her house, sending her gift certificates for meals, things that will allow her to focus on the medical situation and not have to worry about whether the house is clean, there is food in the refrigerator, of if someone has done the laundry. Four weeks is way to new for her to figure out how to cope. Let her be in the moment, learn what the medical decisions are that she needs to make, what the resources are for her and her child, and what kinds of financial support might be available through government programs or by working the insurance. Most importantly, after the crises is over, and she has the ongoing issue of caring for a child that is not healthy, or she looses the child, make sure you hang in with her then. Typically, people are all eager to be involved in the beginning, but if it is a long term deal, most people drop away. People with chronically ill family members need friends to support them and provide help over the long run. Claudia
Hi, When my son had a serious illness, I got a little bit of everything from my friends -- what I really appreciated was friends who called and left messages saying they were thinking of us, and to let them know if there was anything they could do to help. Most of the time, the voice mails made me burst into tears, but it was the good kind of crying -- from knowing that people were out there caring about us. From cross country, that's what I think she would most appreciate from you. You could see if her local friends have set up any arrangements to help her with daily needs -- cooking, cleaning. There might be a way for you to help that way as well. For me, getting daily letters or constant calls would end up making me feel like I had to call back/respond and most of the time, I just wasn't up to it. Claudia
I cannot comment on an identical situation, but I can tell you a little about my feelings after my dad died suddenly and relatively young a couple of years ago. I think this advice translates to most difficult situations like this one.

In my opinion, the main thing is not to shy away from speaking with your friend and being for there for her. Many people are so intimidated by these kinds of difficult situations that they are often afraid to talk with people or are obviously uncomfortable talking with them. The friends who were most helpful to me were the friends who were able to be comfortable spending time with me, the friends with whom I was able to have the same relationship as before my dad died. I was able to spend time with them and they were able to follow my lead about whether I wanted to talk about my dad and how I was feeling or whether I just wanted to chat about life or gossip or hang out together.

I don't think it's that important exactly what you do, but that you don't avoid your friend and don't avoid talking about her baby (which may be something she wants to talk about). Only really stupid comments (like ''I know how you feel, my dog died last year'') are hurtful; pretty much anything people say helps if it conveys that they care about you and your loved one.

Hope that helps. Hope the baby does well. Laura


I had a friend with a premature baby in the NICU in New York. I sent a care package with the following items: small toy that could be hung in the baby's crib/incubator in the NICU; nuts and some other snack foods; activity books for an older sibling; neck pillow (the u-shaped kind that can be heated for warmth and aromatherapy); yoga-type eye pillow; a couple breezy books; a book of essays about work called ''Jobs'' which was quick to pick up and put down. The idea was to find stuff that she and her family can use to refuel, relax, and distract themselves in the long, stressful days. They seemed to really appreciate the contents and the thought.

We communicated by email. The happy news is that the baby seems to be doing great with all tests and development. Good luck to your friend. Jill


I think the best thing you can do to help your friend is to keep calling and sending notes. Flowers are great, but I think it means more to just ''be there,'' even if you don't live near by.

I had a friend a few years ago who was in a similar predicament. She couldn't make any sort of plans or commitments, and although I asked, she didn't want me to come see the baby. So I just kept calling. Even if I just left messages at least I knew she knew I was thinking of her and her family. In fact, when I would get her on the phone, she would ask me to call her again.

I also just wrote notes, telling her I was there etc. I found she would hardly ever call me, but I just kept calling.

Food is always helpful --one thing you might do is to find out from a relative or neighbor in the area if there are any restaurants that do take out or delivery your friend really likes. Then you can call the restaurant and give them your credit card number for whatever amount.

Good luck. Mollie


I'm sorry to hear about your friend. It's hard to have someone you love in such pain--and so far away. When I lost a pregnancy some years ago, a good friend far away sent me a 'thinking about you'' card once or twice a week for a couple of months. They were mostly colorful and corney, and she wrote little in them beyond, ''love, Pam.'' But it was just right. It let me know she was thinking of me during a hard time, and that was what I needed more than words of wisdom or appropriate literature. If you want to do more, perhaps her husband or a local friend could help direct you to a caterer or a restaurant that delivers meals. Often during a hard time, it helps to have someone else cook for you. My best to you. Carolyn
What a good friend you are. My son was in the NICU as a newborn so I can relate to your story on many levels. Speaking from experience, just knowing that people are thinking about you and your baby makes a huge difference.

First of all, don't be afraid to call her. Give her the space to talk or return the call when/if she feels up to it. And listen to her. Let her talk. She doesn't need advice, pep talks, versions of someone else's NICU story or your pity.

Even though you live far away from each other you can still ''be there'' for her in many ways. One thing that was helpful to us was having a few people field calls and relay updates to other friends and extended family. This eliminated the stress of having to tell the same story again and again, which can be absolutely unbearable. Maybe you can offer to compose and send out weekly updates to friends and family via email for them?

Don't worry too much about doing something concrete. Believe me, your friendship is the best gift of all.

I hope everything turns out OK... Fellow mom


I am sorry to hear about your friend's troubles. It is so very hard to have a terribly ill child. Is there someone there who can serve as a contact person, so you don't have to call your friend directly when you'd like to know how things are going? When my first daughter (who subsequently died) was sick in the hospital, we spent most of our time in the ICU, and used our answering machine even when we were at home. It was rare that we felt up to talking to anyone, and so we didn't pick up the phone.

At some point they will come home from the hospital (I hope with their child). Meals would be a good thing to provide, if you can find a service that can do that, or friends who are physically closer, who can help coordinate it. It can be horribly hard to gather the energy for self-care when you are concerned with the life of your child. Doing concrete things, like providing for meals, is better than offering ''anything I can do,'' because (as with energy for self-care) it can be too difficult for the parents to think of things for others to do for them.

If you do get to talk to them on the phone, be prepared to listen more than talk. Please keep the stories of people you know in similar situations, ''and everything turned out just fine!'' to a minimum, because every situation is different, and if things go more wrong (I hope they do not), the stories of how other people got to keep their child will only deepen the hurt.

I wish your friends and their child so much luck. Donna


After our daughter was born in June, she spent a very scary 12 days in the ICU. I have given some thought to what helped me or would have helped me during that sad, frightening and exhausting time. If your friend's experience is anything like ours, her days are probably a numbing cycle of trips to the hospital, pumping (if she is breastfeeding or intending to breastfeed when the baby is released) and halfhearted attempts at eating and sleeping.

I would not dismiss the impact of phone calls, particularly since you are so far away. Every day or every other day is not excessive. Make sure she knows she is not obligated to return every call -- you are just calling to tell her you are thinking about them and she can call when she feels like it. Also, when you do talk to her, ask about the details of her baby's medical condition and progress. Most people in this situation need to talk about it, and the fact that you are interested in details shows your level of interest is far higher than almost anyone's. You'd be amazed at the number of people who talk about anything else but the problem. Don't worry that talking about it will make her sad -- she is already sad. Talking won't make her more sad. If she doesn't want to talk, she won't call.

I do remember being touched by the people who sent flowers, but what was most useful were gifts of food. We wanted to spend every possible minute at the hospital with the baby. Food almost became an afterthought. One friend brought a lasagna and my sister-in-law send a cookie bouquet! Most useful for snacks when you are so drained by the routine of hospital and home. There are a lot of places to mail order food. Much more useful than flowers.

You are right about the letters. For me, they probably would have remained unopened until after the ordeal was over. The only other thing I remember was the people who actually came to the hospital to see the baby. In your case, being on the opposite coast makes that a little difficult.

Hope this helps, feel free to e-mail me if you need any more ideas. Lisa


I think your instincts are right. The most important thing is to let your friend know that you are thinking about her, sympathizing with her, hoping for the best possible outcome for her baby. You can do this by making yourself available through phone calls or letters and just asking open-ended questions like ''How are you doing?'' ''Do you feel like talking about how you're doing?'' or saying supportive things like ''This must be so hard for you.'' ''I can't imagine what you're going through.'' after every conversation, reinforce that you want her to feel like she can call you anytime just to vent, cry, try to be distracted, etc. But don't push too much. Make yourself amply and clearly available, and respect if she doesn't call or write immediately. People have their own ways of dealing with stress, grief, sadness, fear, etc. In my experience, it is NOT helpful to hear things like, ''I'm sure everything will be just fine.'' or ''It's in God's hands.'' or ''You're young, you'll be able to try again if this baby doesn't make it.'' or ''you're lucky your baby has made it this far.'' People think they are just being reassuring when they say things like this, but I think it's really about being afraid to confront the reality of the situation, because it's scary and sad and stressful. Finally, hopefully the baby will fully recover and be healthy, but it is still important to check in with her. She might be dealing with the sadness and stress of seeing her baby so sick for a long time, even after the best possible outcome. Good luck. anon
Not knowing anything about your or her life situations, can you take some time to go visit her? It might mean a lot just to have a good friend ''be there,'' for her, in the truest sense. She's probably spending a lot of time at the hospital, so maybe you could help see to it that her home life is under control - take care of other kids for a few hours here and there, if she has any, or just keep the house in order and have some fresh flowers waiting for her when she comes home, or a warm bath and a glass of wine. Maybe you don't need to do much beside be there and ready to listen if she wants to talk. That is really a heartbreaking situation, I wish you (and her and the baby) the best of luck. Anon
You are already a good friend to her if you are trying to think of what you can do to help. Some thoughts...

1) Yes, calls to let them know you're thinking about them are helpful. Maybe best to call the home answering machine. And periodically say that there's no need to call back unless they feel like it. 2) Flowers are also nice. 3) Food -- the best. Either delivered or just a big box of healthy snacks they can eat in the hospital. 4) Cards, ''just thinking about you,'' etc., are thoughtful. No need to write a lot in them. Better to send a bunch, i.e. one every 2 weeks, then send one long one. 5) E-mails, if they are email people. When my uncle died I sent one a week or so to my aunt, ''just sending you some email hugs,'' etc. She said it meant so much after so many people seemed to be thinking she should be getting over it by then and didn't need the attention.

Someone mentioned that it's best to always keep a positive attitude. I don't agree. I was more comforted by the friends who were sad with me when I was hurt and sad than the ones who were always cheery. Sometimes you need to cry with your friends.

And don't forget the spouse. Sometimes the mother gets all the attention. So when you're leaving a msg, address it to both the parents.

Most of all, keep up the contact. It means the most when people keep checking in.

Don't be a ''if I can do anything...'' person; just do something! Almost anything will be appreciated. Been through some sad times.


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