What do you do for and say to people who have a life-limiting illness? I was very fortunate early in my ministry to have a wonderful mentor — Father Jim Hendricks — who was amazing in his care for the sick. I learned from him by following his good example.
When you find out that someone has a serious illness, hold the gasps. They’re still among the living. Simply ask, “What can I do to be most helpful?” Then listen for an answer.
What to Do
Stay in touch by phone, visits, cards, and emails. Allow the person to respond as energy allows.
Help the main caregiver by giving the caregiver a chance to go for a walk, take a nap, and talk about something besides illness.
Rather than ask, “What can I do?” offer a few specifics. Ask if you can drive them to the library, take them to a movie, or bring them something they are craving. Send movies, books, flowers, and meals in containers that the person doesn’t have to return.
It’s hard for most of us to ask for help. Make it easy for them. Offer to run an errand. Bring over a meal. Do the laundry. Fill the fridge.
Listen. You don’t have to offer answers, advice, or a plan of action. Get comfortable with silence and always look the person in the eye no matter how they look. They are still your friend, sister, brother, or co-worker.
What Not to Do
Don’t disappear. Don’t be that friend who leaves. Stay involved for the long haul. The longer the sickness lasts, the lonelier it can get.
Don’t share horror stories about people who didn’t make it. Too many people want to tell long, drawn-out stories with bad endings. Don’t go there.
There are no right words. Keep it simple and say, “I’m here for you,” and mean it. Sometimes no words are best. Your presence alone matters more than anything you can say.
Don’t blame the person for being sick. Don’t point out that it might be from lack of exercise, smoking, too much red meat or wine, or negative thinking.
Don’t say you know how the person feels. You really don’t.
Don’t take anything personally. Being sick can make a person irritated, tense, sad, depressed, and angry. Remember, the burden of friendship is on the well person.
By Bob Mueller
Bob Mueller is the bishop of the United Catholic Church. bobmueller.org
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