Support loved ones in serious illnesses

That our relationships are the basis for the most beautiful moments in our lives is just as true during the bad times as it is during the good. In fact, it’s when we face our biggest challenges that the beauty of a good relationship is most valuable. So, if someone close to you is facing a serious illness, your love and support will mean more than ever—and it could even deepen your relationship.

To help you find the right approach, here are ten tips for helping a loved one cope with a serious illness.

1. Be prepared

The circumstances of your loved one's illness or recovery may change quickly and unexpectedly. So, it's important to be ready to make emergency trips or make provisions for a hospice at short notice. Keep all the phone numbers and locations you might need handy, and have an overnight bag packed just in case.

2. Help them deal with their diagnosis

Your loved one may be shocked and worried about the future, so it's important to help them understand the implications of their diagnosis for their personal circumstances. That could mean accompanying them to medical appointments and being the “cool head” in the room.

If you or your loved one are unsure about anything, ask for clarification and listen carefully to the medical professionals so that nothing is missed. You may even want to take some notes. All of this means you’ll be as informed as you can be, so you can talk to your loved one about their diagnosis as sensitively as possible.

3. Get to know their medical needs

A loved one who has been diagnosed with a serious disease may need to take medicine at certain times of the day, visit the hospital regularly or require long periods of rest. Talk to their medical team so you can understand the treatment plan and formulate a routine that meets all of their needs. This might require a timetable for hospital appointments and medicine reminders, as well as making arrangements on your side—such as flexible working—so you can be available to help at key times.

4. Just be there, and stay positive

Often, a seriously ill person just wants someone to talk to and a sense of normalcy. Being there for them in this way won’t just help them to process their experiences; it could also help them recover. Research1 has shown that patients who feel comforted and supported by others can manage their symptoms better or even recover more quickly than those who don't. Having a hopeful and optimistic attitude will help you to solve problems, keep up morale and enjoy the time that you have together. You can't control their health, but you can control your reaction to events. And don't hesitate to talk to a specialised counsellor if you're struggling.

5. Help them do the things they love

Whatever their physical ability, your loved one will really appreciate doing things they love—even if doing so requires some creativity. Maybe you could organise a movie marathon at home if they're a film buff who misses going to the cinema, organise a delivery from their favourite restaurant or invite some close friends to join in the fun. This can help keep them connected to the outside world and forget about their diagnosis, at least for a little while.

6. Accept your limitations

It's important to understand that you may not be able to cater fully to an ill family member. For instance, their illness or treatment might change their responsiveness to food or their environment. Understanding their symptoms and any side-effects of their treatment will reduce misunderstandings and allow you to provide the best care you can. And if any of your efforts are rebuffed, don’t take it personally. Just focus on what you can do, be there for them when they’re ready, and know when to look into professional care if needed.

7. Seek out external support

Some charities, organisations and medical facilities offer invaluable services for those who are seriously ill. From delivering meals and providing home care to taking patients on holiday, there’s a wide range of help available to improve your loved one’s well-being and take some of the weight off your shoulders.

8. Delegate

Even if you feel like you should take on a lot of the responsibility, you’ll almost certainly need help from other family members or friends so things don’t become too overwhelming. Making a list of what's required is the first step, but it's also important to ask where others might be able to step in. For instance, one person may be responsible for picking up medical prescriptions from the pharmacy, while another may be on shopping duty.

9. Don't forget about the finances

It might be the last thing that you want to think about, but finances are very important and need to be handled sooner rather than later. Get in touch with your insurance provider concerning your relative's critical illness cover to start benefiting from that protection as soon as possible.

Depending on the severity of the situation, you may also have to apply to take legal ownership of the family finances and write a will, but your insurance provider will be able to help you so that you don't need to think about these things too much and can concentrate on providing moral support.

10. Nothing is too small

Any help at all that you can provide will make an enormous difference to your loved one. Whether it's washing the dishes or simply sitting with them for an hour each day, your time and love are more valuable than anything.