In this issue, we will consider chronic illness from a different perspective: communicating with a friend, family member, or loved one who deals with illness on a daily basis. Let’s be honest: it’s easier to put your foot in your mouth than to create a compassionate, positive dialogue. Those suffering from chronic illness struggle with physical issues that many people will never fully understand. However, honest and thoughtful communication can strengthen relationships and help build a foundation for social, mental and emotional health.
Difficulties almost always come from miscommunication and misunderstanding meaning and intention.
Empathy for the chronically ill takes root in understanding that while these individuals have become slower in some ways, they also have the strength it takes to wake up each morning and face their private struggle head-on.
These tips will help you become better equipped to support those in need. If you are ill, this language can help you take control of the conversation and develop honest relationships with a foundation of common understanding.
- Reach out
Spoonies (the chronically ill) only have so many spoons to give—that is why we may seem to drop out of a given social scene. Take the initiative and contact your sick pal who you haven’t heard from in a month. Don’t worry about disturbing them: they can take a voicemail. A kind email, impromptu coffee, or medical blaze session can make a spoonie’s week and ward off loneliness.
- You are Not a Doctor
“Have you tried yoga? A change in diet? Vigorous hiking?” You name the platitude, we’ve heard it. This is one of the most frustrating topics to deal with as a chronically ill person. While it is meant well, trust that your friend already has a doctor and a health plan in place. These conversations are pretty personal in nature and shouldn’t be lingered on too long. If you have one thing you really think will help, stick to that. If you rattle off a list, we’ll stop listening.
- You are Not a Social Worker
Catching up with your sick buddy might reveal some difficulties they’re facing: trouble at work, trouble keeping work, insurance, medical bills, et cetera. It’s not necessary to fix all these problems personally. Recommending every program you’ve heard of is similarly distressing for many chronically ill people. If you would like to offer assistance, ask, “How can I help?” There’s a good chance they know what area they need a hand with already.
- “Should” and “Just” are Dirty Words
It is horrible to watch someone suffer, but note that giving advice can sometimes be taken the wrong way. In particular, overuse of “should” and “just” can grind someone’s gears pretty quickly. When dealing with life-altering degeneration, it’s insulting to hear things like, “Just take more naps,” or “You should be going to a gym,” which, while good general health tips, may be too dismissive of someone’s personal struggle. Chronic illnesses have far-reaching negative consequences that add up internally.
- Hold Space
This is a skill practiced by hospice caregivers, simply being present with someone who is struggling. Being on bed rest or housebound for long periods of time can be extremely lonely. It’s not necessary to always have a witty remark or a juicy tidbit prepped when with a spoonie. Being fully present and holding space openly is the best way to set the tone.
- Validate Struggles
If your sick pal seems to be complaining about something repeatedly, they might desire validation of their difficulties. For the chronically ill, battling with insurance, doctors, supervisors, judgmental family, or coworkers can all be very frustrating, confusing experiences that make you question yourself and your own judgment. A good friend can see through this and say, “Hey, that sounds really rough. What a messed up situation.” Communicating that you see the difficulty before trying to fix it is essential. In fact, just seeing it can help your pal find the way to fix it.
- Maintain a Degree of Levity
From what I’ve found, the chronically ill have hilarious, twisted senses of humor. We can have a riot and get weird with the rest of them. I encourage you to find that vein of hearty banter with your friend, but there is a very fine line between this step and the previous one. Keeping things light is important without writing off your friend’s experiences.
- Ask and Share
While spoonies might be knocked out of commission quite often, we do interesting things with this downtime: read books, listen to music, watch movies or shows, play games, et cetera. In this regard, a chronic illness is like the Devil’s Master of the Arts. There’s a very good chance you share a passion, interest, or even great stories from your pasts. Learning each other’s histories can be really satisfying, build a great personal bond, and will help your friend feel seen and appreciated.