The Best Ways to Help a Friend Deal With an Illness or Injury

There are plenty of ways to be supportive when a loved one is going through a health crisis—but these are some of the most effective.

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Illnesses and injuries are an inevitable fact of life—and eventually, it'll hit someone you love. And over the past few years, I've experienced health crises as a friend, a main caretaker—and most recently, as a patient myself.

Having friends and family reach out to offer their love and support is probably the only good thing about going through these tough times. And no matter how they supported us—whether it was checking-in texts or dropping off meals or helping us wrangle our kids—it helped.

But if you're the friend who wants to support someone, it can be challenging (but incredibly important) to figure out how to do that. "I think people become unsure about how to help a friend through an illness because of the fear and uncertainty that come along with learning someone you care for is living with an illness," says Raydale Soman, LCSW, a senior psychotherapist at Tate Psychotherapy in New York City who specializes in helping people through chronic illness. "When you have a chronic illness, having good support from others is crucial. A strong social support network can have a positive impact on treatment adherence and healing."

So if you have a loved one who's dealing with an illness or injury right now, don't be afraid to reach out and offer your support. If you're at a loss for how to help, check out this advice to help you find the most effective ways to show you care and help your friend make it through the toughest times.

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Be understanding about how they feel

It's often super-helpful to be there as a sounding board so they can share their feelings. "Be mindful not to minimize and invalidate the person's experience with default responses that could be overly positive such as 'Everything will be OK' or 'stay positive,'" Soman suggests. "We don't want to invalidate the person's feelings, or make them feel like they are burdening us with their truth about how the illness has impacted their life."

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Be specific about how you want to help

The "we're here for anything you need" offers were so lovely. But honestly, I felt like I was imposing by asking them to walk my dog or pick up my prescriptions at the pharmacy. (And so I didn't ask.)

Your best bet? Think of how the recovery will impact their life, and then offer something specific: "I'd love to drive your kids to all their activities this week," "Let me come over and take care of your laundry for you," or "I'd love to drop off a few books you might enjoy while you're recuperating." They're more likely to take you up on the offer.

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Offer to be the point person

My husband's phone was buzzing off the hook from the day of my surgery on, with people checking in with him to see how I was faring. In retrospect, it would have been great to arrange for everyone to be in touch with someone else, so he could focus more on managing our family and helping me recover.

If you're a communicator by nature, grab the contact info for everyone who needs to be in the loop, or post updates on social media and tag the patient so you can keep everyone in their lives up to date.

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Take some time to read up on their illness

Many of my loved ones took the time to find out more about my illness—so they could ask key questions and I didn't have to explain why I was worried or elated as test results rolled in.

"Show interest and support in their journey by doing your own research on their diagnosis," Soman says. "You can do a Google search on the condition and try and read through some articles on what it is like to live with the condition. This will show your loved one that you care and want to be informed on how their life is being impacted—and it will also save them time from having to repeat important aspects of the condition."

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Ramp up a meal train

Not going to lie—the meal train my friend coordinated (she used was a real lifesaver, and I definitely missed the daily deliveries when it was over.

If you're setting it up or participating, make sure you get detailed information about the family's food preferences, allergies, and limitations, so you can make sure they enjoy every bite. (And don't forget to keep an eye on what everyone around you is dropping off, so you can avoid serving them lasagna five days in a row.)

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Think practical when it comes to gifts

Nobody's going to turn down flowers, balloons, candy, and other goodies—trust me. But often, the best gifts are a little more useful. Think super-soft pajamas or sheets, a bed tray, or even a super-long charger cord that'll reach their smartphone or tablet from across the room. (We have a great list of some gifts for people who are sick or injured to give you a little inspiration.)

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Double-check what's allowed

For many illnesses and post-surgical recoveries, there may be limitations on what they can eat or even have in their house, or their treatment side effects may make certain foods unappetizing. (I wasn't allowed flowers during my recovery, and still can't eat grapefruit because of medication interactions.)

Checking in to see if anything's off limits will help ensure your generosity won't go to waste.

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Text, don't call

Your friend may be napping at odd hours, and texts are less likely to disturb their much-needed rest. And texting also lets your friend get back to you when they feel up to it—even if it's days later.

Consider texting a simple "Thinking of you" or "Hope you're feeling better," rather than a "How are you doing?" which may put pressure on them to respond back.

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Ask about something other than their health

Of course, you want to know the latest about their health, and they'll be touched that you've been worrying about them. But your friend may welcome a respite from talking about treatments and doctor's visits, so don't be afraid to shift to other topics after you've found out how they're doing. Any opportunity to chat about something more normal or even frivolous—like their kids or their latest binge-watch—will definitely be welcomed.

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Don't forget the caretaker too

Life can be hard enough to manage when everyone's feeling good, but when one able-bodied adult is out of service, and the other has to shoulder all the family duties and even help care for their partner, it can definitely wear them down. And they may even be so overwhelmed they can't even reach out for help.

That's what happened when I was caring for my husband, who required middle-of-the-night IV infusions and couldn't walk, while I also juggled our home and family obligations and full-time work. I'll never forget when one of my dearest friends texted to offer to bring over a couple of meals—and how just that kind gesture (and her amazing vegetable soup) gave me the boost I needed to get me through the rest of my husband's recovery.

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Be there for them through the long haul

Soman says that many of her clients have found that their friends are there for them for the first six weeks, but often disappear down the line. "The frequency of the calls, texts and visits lessen, and the family or friend dealing with the health crisis is left feeling alone and abandoned," Soman says. "Your gestures do not have to be grand, and your loved one is not looking for you to fix the situation. A small gesture such as a text message or a phone call to the loved one is just enough to make them feel supported, seen, and maybe even provide a little relief and distraction."

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