Someone you know has just been diagnosed as being seriously ill.
What do you do??? How would you react?
After being diagnosed as ‘sick’ family and friends become such an integral part of the recovery process. The first thought is often to rush in offering well-meaning support and help. But we are normally clueless in how to offer such assistance.
Obviously, the medical team will begin work on the physical aspects of the health issue, but when it comes to the life changing and challenging reality caused by serious illness the medical team will leave that to the individual to sort out.
Emotional pain and mental anguish is very normal at this stage.
Especially for someone beginning their journey with an illness. It is important to note that this can take time to process.
Early on, after the diagnosis of an illness, communication is key.
The problem is; neither the patient, family or friends have the experience, know-how or communication skills to offer the help that is needed. The new and often stark reality of a chronic illness can lead to a tsunami of well meaning advice and offers of help.
What IS needed however, is to stop talking, start listening and to give space.
To create a protective circle around the patient allowing them to both absorb their diagnosis and come to terms with it, IN THEIR OWN TIME!
Until this happens it is very difficult for them to look to the future.
It takes time to process “bad news” and while well intended, friends and family flock to offer help and to “find solutions”. The patient is often not ready to move so fast. This can be difficult to communicate because the 'language’ skills needed simply aren't there.
Not just the patient but the family and friends are all thrown out of their comfort zone.
It is a challenge for both the patient and the supporting group. Patients want the autonomy to go back and live as normal a life as possible; however, this is challenging within the confines and limitations of an illness.
So how is assistants given?
Firstly, people need to understand that Support and Help are two very different words.
Family and friends often need to understand that a patient does not always want or need help (at the beginning of their disease journey).
Help can feel intrusive, especially when people push their thoughts and unqualified opinions, often unasked for, onto the patient.
Support is much more useful. While the patient struggles to uncover the realities of living with an illness, family and friends need to be ready to assist, when called for.
Dealing with an illness is processed differently by everyone. Once the patient has figured this out then the support and help of the family and friends becomes essential.
I was diagnosed with Kidney failure, unexpectedly, at 20 years of age. At the time I was living overseas studying Sports & Fitness Studies. Being told I had a lifechanging, irreversible illness and would need hospitalised treatment every 2 days was incomprehensible for me. I simply couldn't figure out how life was going to work.
At that time I was inundated with offers, suggestions, and opinions of what I needed to do, and how I should do it.
However, at this time my mental and emotional state were in turmoil. I was living through a fog of disbelief and loss over my planned future which was suddenly no longer a reality!
- I look back with gratitude that my dear mother came to stay with me. Instead of a barrage of advice and suggestions of what I needed to do, she gave me the space to reflect and come to terms with my new reality.
She prepared meals, picked up medication and organised transport to the hospital. This support was invaluable. Also, her hidden hand in dealing with the constant questions from family and friends left me free to uncover the path I needed to take.
Then, when I was ready, I looked for the HELP I needed.
- I went to the University to seek help with continuing my studies.
- I went to the hospital to seek help to fit my treatment around college.
- I went to my friends and family seeking the specific help I needed to navigate a life with a serious illness.
Overall, patients need both help and support from those closest to them, there is no question about this. However, until the patient decides what course this may take, conflict often occurs.
The communication skills necessary for these types of conversations are not always there, so it leads to frustration for the patient and creates a sense of uselessness and impotence for those striving to show their love.
Communication is key to finding solutions between the need of families and friends to be involved and how much involvement the patient desires from those offering.
What to do?
Support: Initially offer your support, then be quiet and listen. Be there as a sounding board. Soak up the many overwhelming emotions. Console and empathise as much as you can. Listen to the healthcare team's instructions and look after the day to day, non-important, practicalities for the patient.
And when the patient has accepted the new reality of living with an illness, together, ye can begin to move forward to the life ahead.
Your help will be an essential part of the recovery process. So be positive, proactive and forward thinking, always communicating and working with the patient to find the best way of moving forward within the confines and limitations of their illness.
Paulo Coehlo says “... when you can't go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward”, so develop this mindset, it will help everyone face the future in a useful and forward thinking way
As a loved one, remember:
SUPPORT: Giving the right support will allow your loved one the time to come to terms with their diagnosis and illness.
HELP: The right help will allow them to deal with the practicalities and direction their life will now take due to the illness, with you by their side
Be aware of both and act accordingly so you can give the right assistance, at the right time in the right way.