Being there for a sick friend

It's a shock to find out you or someone you know has a serious illness. It's important to look after yourself to support your friendPeople will react differently to the news, and you can work with their reaction (whatever it is) and be supportive of them. There are things you can do to look after yourself, and to support a friend through a life-threatening illness.

This could be for you if:

  • You or a friend has a serious illness 
  • You're supporting someone with a serious illness 
  • You want to know how to talk about it 
  • You want to understand what your friend is going through
couple against concrete wall

My friend is sick – what can I do?

When a friend or family member gets seriously ill, it's really stressful, especially if it looks like they might die. There's heaps of stuff to think about. It's hard to know what to say or do, or how to be a good friend.

Sometimes people feel guilty for talking about your normal problems and trivial day-to-day stuff, as well as beginning to worry about what will happen if you lose your friend. However, it’s important to remember that you will be much more helpful to your friend if you also look after yourself.

How do I do that?

The news of a friend’s illness will probably rock you a fair bit, and you can be stressed, angry, confused, distracted and depressed once you know. Sometimes it might even take a while to feel anything, but however you react, it's totally normal.

It can be hard to shake this off, and if you're having trouble with it, you should talk to someone outside the situation. Counsellors, doctors, or other health workers are all really good options if you’re looking for some support.

How do they feel?

Young people from CanTeen have said that it's okay to talk and ask questions about you friend's illness, as long as they want to answer them. Remember that your friend might like some company if they're off school or in hospital, so it’s worthwhile visiting/phoning/calling on skype/online chatting when you can. Be aware that your friend will need some support, so try to make sure there are a couple of people around to help so there is a wide support network for them.

Everyone's reaction to something like this will be different though. It can be hard to talk about serious or life-threatening illness with close friends, and they might not want to talk, or even see anyone initially.

This doesn't mean they want to cut you out. They've just got really huge, difficult news, and they're trying to digest it in their own way. You can let them know you're there for them by sending them an email, message or letter telling them you want to support them.

Things to do

You can: 

  • Remember that your friend might have to make massive adjustments to their life, and be patient with them
  • Weather the bad days. Things are likely to get frustrating and overwhelming for your friend, and some days they won't have much energy or patience 
  • Allow confusion. Sometimes, you're not going to know what's going on or why your friend is doing something. Be flexible, and take one step after another
  • Realise that people with the same disease aren't going through the same thing. Everyone’s different and your friend is still the person you know, they are not defined by their illness

What can I do now?

  • Make sure you set aside regular time just for yourself.
  • Try to organise some fun activities to help distract your friend from their illness.
  • Find out more about their illness to understand what they’re going through.
Last reviewed: 24 August, 2015
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