10 Ways to help when your friend has a serious illness


1st Jan 2015 Wellbeing

10 Ways to help when your friend has a serious illness

It's hard to know what you should—and shouldn't—say or do when a friend has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. Before she died of lung cancer, Gayle Stewart compiled a list of all the ways her friends could help. Here's her advice. 

1. Appoint an organiser

woman on the phone

Via phone and the internet, Gayle's sister Susu coordinated transportation during 23 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. Gayle said it took some pressure off. "I didn't have to feel I was twisting friends' arms and they could say no if they needed to because they didn't know my sister well."

About 25 friends and acquaintances volunteered to help with the driving, waiting and support through appointments.


2. Just be there

An encouraging card, email or call "is wonderful to receive", said Gayle. 

She cautioned against sending information on alternative therapies, no matter how well intentioned. Trust that your friend is surrounded by experts. 


3. Be careful about flowers


Maintenance of a lot of plants and flowers can add to the household chores.

Still, Gayle said, "it is a joy to open the door and see a bouquet". 

Book a reputable online flower delivery service like Bouqs and choose from their wide selection of blooms. Your friend would also appreciate a heartfelt message of encouragement.


4. Help with chores

An offer of help is best received when it's specific. A vague "How can I help?" puts the onus back on Gayle to come up with something. But an "I see your plants need attention, I'll clean them up" needs only a "thank you" in response. 

There are also things you can do that don't require any contact—take in the bins, rake the leaves or mow the lawn. 


5. Label your loans

Pile of books

A keen reader, Gayle gladly received and devoured many books from friends. If you are lending books, DVDs or music make sure you label them. 

Offer to do the sleuthing required to return mystery items to their owners. 


6. Indulge them

Comfort items are always a welcome gift. New pyjamas, special soaps or fresh towels could brighten your friend's day. 

Some people might have the strength to read a favourite book or magazine, but for others, an audiobook might be more appropriate. 


7. Prepare their favourite food


Grandparents have it right when they head to the kitchen at the first sign of trouble. "Food becomes such an issue", Gayle says. "When someone drops off a casserole it's wonderful."

Keep an eye on changing tastes and needs. Gayle started her illness with an organic diet and welcomed the care friends took in preparing healthy soups and packets of dried fruit and nuts. 

When her focus became maintaining her weight, lasagna was a better choice. 


8. Consider her family too

Gayle didn't want her husband and then 20-year-old daughter forgotten. 

With all their extra duties, spouses and children may not be able to manage as well. Consider what you might do to help the family as well as your friend. 


9. Organise servings


Package food in portions so there's no waste. Along with the ingredients and heating instructions, add a note of encouragement to the label. 


10. Keep inviting them out

Although her social outings were limited, Gayle and her husband appreciated staying on the invitation lists. It's always nice to be asked. 


The worst thing you can do is disappear

Dont disappear

No matter how well-intentioned people are, not everyone knows how to give.

Gayle said that many people are stopped from sending a simple email for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Trying is always better than doing nothing at all!