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Joyful Musings

By Joy Birnbach Dunstan,

How Can I Help?

JoyMaybe it’s just my age, but lately it seems like I’ve been surrounded by more than the usual number of people with serious health issues.  Even I endured my own health scare that was wonderfully relieved when five doctors agreed the original radiography report was in error.

It’s difficult coping with your own infirmities, and it’s also difficult knowing how to support someone you love through theirs. Often, well meaning friends and family feel awkward and don’t know how to respond, or they say things that only make the patient feel worse.

Asking “What can I do to help?” can sometimes be more of a burden than a blessing. Your friend may be hesitant to ask you to do a chore that feels like an imposition or be too distracted to think of what’s needed.  Instead, offer to do something specific: “I’m going to the market. Can I pick up a few things for you?” “Can I take your dog for a walk? I’d like the exercise myself.” Or just do something helpful on your own.  Bring a meal or some snacks. Wash the dishes or throw in a load of laundry. Clean out the fridge of the old food that’s grown fur since your friend got ill.

Don’t inundate the patient with every miracle cure you may have seen on TV or read about in a magazine. Unless s/he has asked you for input on their medical care, don’t cast doubt upon the wisdom of what they’re doing. Hope and optimism for the future are prime ingredients for creating health.

A person battling a life-threatening illness or serious accident needs uplifting encouragement not pity. They need honest support, not platitudes or hollow compliments. Don’t tell your friend how wonderful s/he looks when s/he’s laying in bed with tubes sticking out everywhere or clumps of hair falling out. Offer comments you really mean: “I sure admire the way you’re handling this.  It must be really difficult.” “I’m sorry you have to go through this. You mean a lot to me.”

Keep your visits short, generally 20 minutes or so, even less if the patient is tired or in pain. Visit one or two at a time, not in groups. It’s better to go when the person still has energy rather than leave them needing to recuperate from your visit as well.

Be sensitive to whether s/he needs a sympathetic ear or chatty conversation. Coping with illness can evoke myriad emotions, and your friend may appreciate an opportunity to vent and express feelings. Or perhaps, s/he’d enjoy hearing from you about what’s going on out in the world. Talk about other things besides their illness, and don’t make your friend feel like s/he’s got to entertain you.

Don’t speak to the person like s/he’s a child. “How are we today?” can sound condescending. Someone who’s sick needs to know they’re remembered and cared about without being burdened or diminished by the gesture. If it’s appropriate, a hug or gentle touch can be therapeutic and help the person feel accepted and connected.

It really is the thought that counts most. My mom once told me that it isn’t really the chicken soup that is curative, but that someone cared enough to make it for you. Who do you know who could use some chicken soup?

Editor’s Note: Joy is a practicing psychotherapist in Riberas. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 765-4988.

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