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Discussing the good, bad and ugly experiences patients face in healthcare today.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How To React When A Loved One Is Diagnosed With A Serious Illness

I'm sure many of you have experience with this one. A friend or family member is diagnosed with chronic pain, diabetes, cancer, lupus, epilepsy or another chronic, potentially life threatening or fatal disease. How should you react?

The truth is, there's no right way. I mean, the wrong way would be to laugh in their face or never speak to them again. I know that mom and I have lost friends because of scary illnesses - friends just couldn't handle it, so they disappeared. If you're feeling like you can't deal with your loved one's diagnosis, be honest. Let them know that you're not sure what to do, but that you can simply be there for them. Maybe you haven't had to deal with something this severe before, and that's okay. Just be sure, however you react, that it's supportive. So, beyond that initial reaction, what can you do?

One of the first things you can do is either ask them about their diagnosis, or do some extracurricular research. Webmd.com is a good, realiable place to start if you're looking up a specific illness. You can also browse bookstores or your local library for information. This will show your loved one that you care enough to educate yourself on what they're going through, and will give you the peace of mind that comes with knowledge.

Another thing you can do is listen. Just listen. Don't try to compare what they're going through with what someone's cousin's dog went through, just listen and respond appropriately. Sometimes a "I can't even imagine what that's like," or "that must be so frustrating" is enough.

Lastly, you can get off the topic. Life goes on no matter how we're feeling, right? So, if possible, take your friend out for a quick shopping trip, bring lunch by and have a picnic in the living room, rent a movie - do something that doesn't involve his/her health problems. If your loved one isn't well enough to do something active, you can always read to them, do chores, or run errands for them and recount what you heard and saw when you get back.

Remember that people respond differently to bad news. Some handle it with tears, some with humor, some with a practical, straightforward attitude. You can take cues from your loved one to see what responses are appropriate to them. A great resource that I'm currently reading with my husband is the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. (Click the link to go to the official website, where you'll find quizzes and other info.) It's a book about discovering your husband or wife's "love language," or the way they express and receive love. Even though the book is designed for couples, the concept translates to family and friends easily. Find their love language, and you'll learn how to show them you care in the best way. Sometimes it's with gifts, like bringing what Mom and I call "happy day gifts" (gifts without special occasion,) or it might be with quality time, just sitting and talking about what's going on in life. Whatever your loved one's love language, you can assure they feel loved by you when you come to visit.

A side note - if you're having difficulty dealing with your loved one's diagnosis, or are just looking for advice or kinship, look for a local support group. Support groups aren't just for people with illnesses, they're also for the people the illness affects indirectly. So, while you're printing out a list of support groups your loved one could be a part of, find one that you can be a part of, too.

Wishing you wellness,

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