By Karin Sullivan*
Growing up, it seemed like my Dad was always sick. There were stretches of good
health, but for some reason my memory clings more to the hard times he had. It
always felt like we experienced his personal pain together as a family, like it
was happening to us all. These feelings may be typical because it's so difficult
to see someone in so much pain
-- and especially when it is someone you love
When someone you love is chronically ill, your first instinct is to find a way
to help. Unfortunately, those good intentions can lead to feelings of
frustration. Especially when dealing with illnesses that are not clearly
diagnosed or even fully understood by medical practitioners.
Years of searching for answers and suffering can wear down even the most
optimistic. But take heart, feelings of helplessness, fear, frustration, loss of
hope, and anger are all very natural. You should never feel shame or get
discouraged because of these feelings. Everyone experiences them, you are not
alone and it's important that you don't lose sight of that. Remember, even Moses
wandered around the wilderness for 40 years before finding the Promised Land.
Here are some important and simple things you can do to show your support:
- Educate yourself. Learn about their illness with them so you know what to
expect, what is happening, and how you can possibly lend support in finding a
treatment plan that works for them. There are so many resources available to you
today. Knowledge about the illness will make you feel more equipped, but dont
use it to act like a know-it-all.
- Validate. A major thing that will make a loved one feel supported
through their illness is to genuinely validate how they are feeling. Let them
know that you know there is something wrong, and that what they are going
through is not how they are supposed to feel all the time.
- Listen. Ask how they are feeling and be prepared to listen for a
while. Find out about their private struggles and fears if they feel comfortable
telling you. Allow them to vent, and hear their complaints with true concern and
- Sympathize. This one is a pretty easy idea, but may be hard to put
into action. It is not pity. It is expressing compassion for how they feel. This
may be better done through actions than through words.
- Encourage. Provide meaningful emotional support, encourage them in
all their efforts to find wellness, and cheer for them when they seem to lose
hope. However, be gentle in your encouragement. Don't make it sound like they
can do whatever they put their mind to, as this will perhaps discourage them and
distance you from them.
- Have patience. One of the toughest things about having a chronically
ill loved one can be having patience. This may be one of the most important
things you can do though. It is easy for them to get frustrated with how they
feel, and if you rain frustration down on them as well, this can be an
overpowering negative force.
- Help out. Simple, and very do-able. Someone with a chronic illness
can easily feel overwhelmed by their daily tasks. If possible, find something
small that you can do to help. Find ways to lighten their load. You can be a
greater aid than you (or they) may realize.
- Be positive. It may be hard for your loved one to be optimistic,
which is understandable when they are fighting a daily battle and feel like
they're on the losing side. So it sometimes falls on you to be the voice of
hope. As above though, remember to be considerate in your positivity. The last
thing you want to do is invalidate how they are feeling.
- Be proactive. There are always new things to learn. Seek out answers.
Try and help your loved one take charge of their treatment, and not be passively
in their doctors care. Assist them in actively looking for treatments. You will
likely discover more solutions together.
- Get connected. There are literally thousands of online support groups
full of people just like you who are looking for (and sharing) insight from
others going through the same experiences. Connecting with these groups and
people can be tremendously useful for finding tips and tricks for coping or
keeping updated on medical innovations that you can share with your doctor
(remember, be proactive). Lots of times support groups have local chapters that
meet and get to know each other on a more personal level. This is a great option
if you don't have access to the internet or would prefer the face-to-face
- Remember yourself. It can be very easy to forget all about taking
care of yourself when you're concerned and caring for someone else. Its
important not to lose yourself though. Take some time to indulge yourself. We
all need me time occasionally.
While I was too young most of the time to do much more than entertain my Dad or
put a smile on his face, there are many things on this list that my family, and
especially my Mom, did to help support him through his chronic illnesses. And I
have it on good authority that our support was felt and appreciated. :-)
A chronic illness may feel just as discouraging for you as it is for those loved
ones suffering through them, but don't give up. Answers take time and the
recovery process can take years. Stay strong, be positive, seek out others that
offer support and comfort; and above all, remember your efforts are appreciated
more than you can ever imagine. Even the smallest of gestures can have a big
* Karin is the daughter of Jigsaw Health's CEO and co-founder, Pat Sullivan
- Healing Well - A thriving community and information resource for patients, caregivers, and families coping with diseases, disorders and chronic illness.
- Rest Ministries - A non-profit Christian organization that serves people who live with chronic illness or pain, and their families, by providing spiritual, emotional, relational, and practical support through a variety of programs and resources.
- The Invisible Disabilities Advocate - Helping friends and family better understand chronic illness and pain, as well as learn how to be a source of encouragement and support.
- Daily Strength - A large, comprehensive health network of people sharing their advice, treatment experiences, and support.