5 Key Ways to Support a Loved One with a Chronic Disease

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 31 January 2019
  • 3 minute read
5 Key Ways to Support a Loved One with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

This article is written by Melisa Marzett from Essay Editor.

It’s a real shock to find out that someone you care about suffers from a disease that could lead to disability or even death. To family and friends, it may seem like their plans and dreams together have faded, and only uncertainty, loss and grief remain.

“Loneliness constantly tormented me, it seemed as if I was cut off from everyone,” says my friend Kathleen, whose husband suffered from chronic depression. “Nothing ahead could be seen. We could not even invite guests or go to someone. In the end, we almost completely stopped communicating with people.” Many relatives, just like Kathleen, experience guilt because they feel there’s little they can do to help.

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross established that a significant part of ill people go through several stages of grief when diagnosed with a (life-threatening) illness. What do these phases look like and what can family and friends do to support a loved one with a chronic disease?

The 5 Stages of Grief When Experiencing Loss

The initial difficult period –the shock phase, when a person finds out that he or she has severe disease – can be accompanied by anxiety, panic and fear. At this stage, it’s vital for loved ones to show a willingness to help and listen.

After the shock has worn off, the first stage of denial may occur. Trying to numb their overwhelming emotions, patients tell themselves “This can’t be happening.” Your sick friend may postpone hospitalization or ask for a second opinion. During this period, he or she could experience sleep disturbances, neurotic states, the return of childhood fears and loneliness. Helpful attitudes of relatives are patience, attention and support. It’s also good if you can visit the doctor together, help collect reliable information about their illness and research options for treatment.

Next, an ill person might go through the dysphoric stage.This second phase is characterized by a pronounced emotional reaction: anger addressed to doctors, society or relatives. Patients try to understand the causes of the disease: “Why did this happen to me?”In this phase, you need to give the patient room to speak out, to express all their grievances, anger and fears. Help your friend to find constructive ways to vent their frustration and to keep hope alive during this tough time.

The third stage of bargaining and pleading is characterized by attempts to “bargain” for a better outcome. During this phase, a person with a life-threatening illness can turn to God, trying to prolong life according to the principle: “If I do this, will you let me live?” Someone with a chronic disease might bargain they’ll do anything to get better again. Patients may also lie awake at night wondering “what if”: ‘What if I had eaten healthier, what if I’d exercised every day, would I still be healthy then?”As a friend or family member, you can take their mind off their worries and plea bargains by providing positive distraction. Hope and faith in treatment success are also a lifeline for a seriously ill person.

5 Key Ways to Support a Loved One with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

The fourth phase is the phase of depression. At this stage, the sick person understands the full gravity of one’s situation. He or she gives up, stops fighting, avoids friends, leaves their usual business, retreats at home and mourns his or her fate. During this period, relatives feel a sense of guilt or despair. In this stage, you need to give a person confidence that they’re not alone, that the struggle of life continues, that she or he is supported and worried about. You can talk about spirituality and faith, as well as support the patient’s (other) relatives emotionally.

The fifth acceptance stage is the most ‘ideal’ psychological reaction, although not everyone reaches it. Your sick friend or family member finally accepts their new reality as it is and mobilizes his or her efforts to make the most of life despite their illness.

The above stages do not always go in the prescribed order. The patient may stop at some stage or even return to the previous one. However, knowledge of these stages helps you understand what is happening in the soul of a confronted person with a severe illness, and for developing an optimal strategy for interacting with them.

5 Key Ways to Support a Loved One with Chronic Disease

If someone close to you happens to be ill, the most important thing is to speak openly about both your feelings. Explain your own feelings, listen to your sick friend without immediately offering solutions and show that you still see the person you care about. Communicate openly and do not isolate the patient from the life of the family and loved ones.

For a good communication, create supportive conditions so your sick friend can share their emotions, fears and heavy feelings. As a rule, fear is the underlying feeling behind a lotof what a person says or does. Tearfulness or irritability is a signal of exhaustion of the adaptive mechanisms of the psyche. When that happens, it helps to give a person time to gather and recuperate.

Have a look at 5 more key ways to support a loved one with chronic illness.

5 Key Ways to Support a Loved One with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

  1. Show your willingness to survive all difficulties together

Demonstrating your support creates a sense of security and reduces anxiety. You can be sensitive to your sick loved one’s needs or offer them options for distraction and replenishment: watching uplifting movies together, listening to relaxing music, taking walks in the fresh air or meeting up  with friends. If possible, involve a psychologist who will help you survive this difficult period.

  1. Watch your own boundaries

And still, it is impossible to adapt too much to the patient, depleting your own strength and creating an imbalanced relationship. To avoid caregiver burnout, be mindful about your own needs and wants too.

  1. Help set achievable goals

Having plans for the future can spark hope and determination when you’re ill. Just make sure your sick friend starts small. Seeing results from their efforts will give your loved one some faith back in their body and capabilities, while not being able to reach a previously easy goal may smash their hope. Remember your friend or family member that every big change is the results of a thousand tiny actions in the right direction.

  1. Encourage initiative

Just because someone’s physically ill, doesn’t mean they can’t make independent decisions. As much as you want to help, try not to do everything for them. Instead, explore ways, aids and systems that help your sick friend or family member to do more things by themselves. Your task is not to save but to support your sick loved one.

  1. Derive hope from others who’ve overcome similar obstacles

One of the central elements of Avon’s global women’s health campaign “Do not wait – take your mother to the mammologist!”was a social video showcasing ordinary people confessing their love to each other. The message once again reminds us that the best manifestation of love is a concern for the health of those who are truly dear to us.

Fortunately, many families faced with serious illness found that adapting to the new situation was not as difficult as it seemed at first glance. Let the fact comfort you that other families safely continue their thorny path through an unfamiliar country called chronic disease and that you can do it too. Many have found it easier to find comfort and hope when they see how others successfully overcome such difficulties.

Author bio: Melisa Marzett is a certified psychologist, who is currently working for Essay Editor. She loves writing as much as she loves psychology and helping people. Also, she practices yoga, goes to live concerts and takes singing lessons.

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