At some point in our lives (and probably more than once), we will be told by a friend that they (or their partner, parent, child, or other loved one) have been diagnosed with a serious, maybe even life-limiting, condition.
How do we respond?
I’ve got some ideas:
When your friend tells you of this diagnosis, DO listen, and respond with empathy. It’s OK to say anything from, “That really sucks,” to “I’m so sorry” and, if you’re in person, offer a hug. Let them cry. Let them just be with what they are telling you.
After they have told you their story, DO ask, “How can I help?” Everyone is different, and will want different things from their friends, and that need will probably change over time. How is the best way to stay in touch — phone calls, email, texts, snail mail, in person visits? Then DO what they ask of you. Do they want meals brought in? Help with household tasks? Childcare? Pet sitting/dog walking? Lunch dates? Long walks? Just ask. They will know best what they need.
If they ask you to visit, DO visit! Remember to keep it short and specific, and to keep it fun. Go for a walk, go out for coffee, lunch or a drink, sit in a park or other beautiful place, take in a concert, play, movie, or sports event. Your friend is still your friend. What did you like to do together in the past? Do it now! Just know that it may be different for your friend — they may tire easily, may need to go home sooner than planned, or have you leave if they’re not feeling well. Remember — this is about their needs, not yours.
DO ask their care partner how you can best support them. Even though they may not physically have the condition, they live with it every day, and it can be physically and emotionally draining. Just as with your friend (above), plan to do something fun with their care partner — or offer to stay with your friend while their care partner goes out and does something fun on their own or with another friend.
DO NOT offer advice about “cures,” special diets, herbal remedies, alternative health choices, or anything else you’ve read on the internet. Your friend and their care partner have already spent plenty of time on the internet, and maybe even have sought a second opinion or advice from a major medical center. They have done their research and made their choices. Just listen. And for heaven’s sake, DO NOT tell them what a gift this is for them.
DO face your own mortality. If your friend’s diagnosis brings up your own fear of illness and death, deal with it. Seek out another friend (DO NOT discuss your personal concerns about this with your friend who has the illness or their care partner. They have enough to deal with.) or a clergy person or therapist.
If your friend has dementia, DO be prepared for them to change. They will not always be your same old friend — in outward appearance. But, deep inside, they will still be your same old friend. They may no longer be comfortable leaving home — or may not be able to. They may not remember you. DO visit anyway. Your visit will bring them happiness. Sing or play music together. Look through photo albums or beautiful coffee table books. Read to them. Hold hands. Laugh. Offer to stay with them while their care partner runs errands, goes out for lunch, or takes a nap.
DO NOT assume your friend’s dementia (or other illness) will be the same as your grandparent/parent/cousin/friend/partner who has/had the same condition. As the saying goes, once you’ve seen one person with dementia, you’ve seen one person with dementia. Everyone’s path is different.
DO keep checking in with your friend and their care partner about what they need right now. And, above all, DO NOT disappear from their lives. You are important!