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How can I support my chronically ill friends?

6 Tips on how to be there for your friend.

Something people often say when they become chronically ill, is, that you really see, who your true friends are. We may not be able to do as many things as before, and sometimes we may need some help or emotional support, and some people shy away from that.

But how can you be there for your chronically ill friend?

There are those friends, who are on your side, no matter what, and then there are those who just vanish out of your life. As hurtful as that is, it shows you, who really has your back.

I think, one problem is, that many people are just so scared of the topic of illness and disability, that they just don’t know what to say and how to talk with the person, and as a result they are overwhelmed and shy away from the person completely.

I’m sure many of us have made this experience, and it does not feel nice. But having friends that are truly on your side and supportive no matter what, is unbelievably strengthening.

I would say, that many of my friendships grew even stronger after my diagnosis, and I am very thankful for that.

So how can I be a good friend to my chronically ill pals?

These are the 6 most helpful tips that in my experience, have made a huge difference.

The good news: most of these tips are actually quite easy to realize, you just have to think of them! So, if you want to find out, how you can best support your chronically ill friends, then keep reading!

1. Listen to us and believe us

Having a chronic illness can come with many challenges. One of the things that many people struggle with, is the fact that many people doubt and question us, or simply don’t believe us.

“But you look fine to me!” or “You must be exaggerating” or “others have it much worse” can be common answers.

Hearing such things can be extremely invalidating. We probably already have tons of internalized ableism to deal with, so hearing any of these things from our close friends or family members can be very hurtful. You often can’t see our pain from the outside, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Having to constantly prove that we are sick, and that we are not drama queens, is extremely exhausting and frustrating. Some patients, especially young women, have to fight for years to be diagnosed. We often have to face years of medical gaslighting and disbelief before we get any help.

Your friends and family should be the ones who have your back and who support you in this journey, not the ones who make your life even harder!

If someone tells you that they are feeling unwell, your first instinct may be to console the person with something like “Look, it could be much worse!” This may be meant well, but often makes the person feel even worse about themselves. We may start doubting ourselves and wonder, if our pain or struggles are really that bad – when in reality, comparing yourself is not helpful at all. Pain is pain, and another one’s broken arm doesn't make your cut hurt any less. And comments like this can be the reason, why some people don’t seek help for years, and when they finally do, it may be much more difficult to treat the illness compared to an earlier stage.

If you want to help someone, then listen to them with an open ear, instead of judging them.

Instead of saying “others have it worse” you can say: “I’m sure this must be hard to deal with. Is there anything I can help you with?”

This shows, that you believe the person, that you don’t judge them, and that you are there to support them if needed.

2. Offer help instead of waiting to be asked

Asking for help can be something that many people struggle with, especially if you have just been diagnosed and everything is still new. We are often raised to be independent, to be self-sufficient and to never burden other people with anything. And don’t get me wrong, being an independent, self-sufficient person is a good thing, but sometimes there are situations in life where it is not easy, or not possible to do everything on your own.

The thing is, that we often don't really learn, how to ask for help, and we might feel guilty if we do, so we avoid it. We wouldn’t want to burden anyone, so we end up doing way too much on our own. But the thing is, that when you have a chronic illness, you really have to ration your energy and treat is as the valuable resource that it is. It happens way too often, that we go over our boundaries because we are too stubborn, and we want to keep track of all our tasks, get to all of our appointments on time while also keeping the house squeaky clean. But sometimes all of this is just not possible without help, and that’s ok.

If you want to support your friend, then you can offer help before they even have to ask, because for some people it is much easier to accept help, than to ask for it.

You can offer something like: “Do you need anything from the supermarket? I’m on my way there and I can pick up some stuff!”, or “Do you need me to take you to your appointment so you don’t have to use public transport?”

Also, any help in the house is always appreciated. Things like vacuum cleaning, doing the laundry or changing the bedsheets may be easy tasks for people who are fit, but when you’re chronically ill, they might require a lot of energy that we don’t always have. So being offered some help in these departments can mean a lot to us. They may be small things, but getting some support with these things can be extremely helpful and save us some valuable energy that we can then use for something else.

And if you struggle with asking for help and want to learn how to do it better, I have a little trick for you: If I need to ask for help, and I feel like I shouldn’t, I ask myself first: “would I do this for my friend if they were in this situation?”, and usually the answer is yes.

3. Be understanding if we have to cancel

Chronic illnesses can be unpredictable. Many of them are very dynamic in their nature (see my article about dynamic disabilities) and this can make things really difficult to plan. While you may have days where you feel almost “normal” and you can carry out your task without many problems, there may be other days where it is almost impossible to get out of bed, and getting enough to eat is your only priority.

So sometimes it can happen, that we have to cancel plans, even if we have really looked forward to the event. This hurts us probably more than it hurts you, believe me.

Having a body that is so unreliable and unpredictable can be extremely frustrating and depressing, and it is something many people with chronic illnesses or disabilities struggle a lot with. We often feel guilty about these things, even if we don’t have any control over it, but it can feel as though we are constantly disappointing our friends.

If you want to be supportive to your chronically ill friend, please be understanding if this happens, and never take it personally. This sucks for us more than you can imagine, and we surely don’t do it to hurt anybody. But even if this keeps happening, please continue inviting us. Being invited to things even if there’s a chance that we might not make it is an important signal that our presence is valued, and that including us matters to you.

If you are unsure if the person can attend or not, you can always ask us in advance about how you can make your event more accessible to us, which brings me to my next point:

4. Ask us about our access needs

Being able to take part in life, and to be included, is very important if you have a chronic illness or a disability. Many suffer from isolation and loneliness, because the world at large is often very inaccessible to us, and this can often lead to feelings of depression and loneliness.

So being included in activities with our families and friends is hugely important to us! We all deserve to have a social life, and to be included.

But leaving your house for a get together can be a huge challenge when you’re chronically ill.

So, if you want to support your friend to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for them, ask them in advance, how you can help them with their access needs. Sometimes, conversations around this topic can be quite awkward, but they really don't have to be. Just ask us!

If someone an energy limiting chronic illness, for example, being offered a ride to and from the place can be a huge help. Also, having a quiet room where we can take breaks to lie down for a while can be extremely helpful. If there is food, it is always good to ask us first, if there are any allergies or sensitivities, and if you an offer anything that is safe for us to have.

Also, we might only have limited energy for an event or a get-together, so it can be helpful to talk about when we might need to leave so we can rest. If you visit the person, ask how long it is ok for them to hang out, and to let you know when they need to be alone, without any hard feelings. We don’t want to kick you out of course, but sometimes we can’t socialize as long as we may want to.

If the person uses a wheelchair, please make sure in advance, that the venue is wheelchair accessible. Being invited to a party as a wheelchair user to an inaccessible venue probably doesn’t feel very nice, or as if you are an afterthought, and your needs aren’t valued.

Maybe these are small things, but they can make a huge difference! Asking a simple question like “Do you need a ride?” or “Can I help make this more accessible to you?” can mean the world to us.

5. Keep informing yourself

If you want to make your chronically ill friend really happy, then do some research into their condition. Hearing something like “Hey I read about your illness last night and I learned something new!” is probably one of the best feelings when you have a chronic condition.

It shows us, that you take us seriously, that you care, and that you invest time into learning about what we have to deal with on a daily basis. It is an ultimate sign of appreciation and respect. But this doesn’t end with reading an article one time! If we send you a link: please read it. If we share an important post on social media: please share it. Help us spread the word. This may seem like a small thing, but it is so important.

Furthermore, inform yourself on how to be an ally for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, and how to be actively anti-ableist. (You can check out this post I made about allyship last year)

We were all socialized in an ableist society, so many of the things we do or say might be ableist, even if we didn’t even have the intention. Learning about ableism and how you can better support people with chronic illnesses and disabilities won’t only help your friend, but many people in your life. Many people struggle with invisible disabilities that we don’t even know about. Maybe you have a colleague at work who is struggling with an invisible illness that they don’t want to disclose, or maybe you get a new neighbor someday who is a wheelchair user. These people will appreciate it, if you don’t use ableist language, and if you have an idea about how you can best support them.

Also, if someone is openly ableist and rude to us, either online or when were out and about, then you can help your friend by saying something. Many people with invisible disabilities get negative comments when they use an accessible parking space or seating on public transport. You can help your friend by speaking up in the situation. It is the best feeling to know, that whatever happens, your friends will have your back, and they won’t let anyone be abusive towards you.

But you can also help them, when they’re not around. If you hear someone use ableist language: say something. If you notice that a place isn’t accessible, speak up!

It is exhausting to always fight for your own rights. Having someone on your side to assist you in this can be a huge help!

6. Keep in touch

This tip is an easy one to realize, but with a big effect: Please keep in touch with us.

Many chronically ill people are abandoned by their friends after they become ill. The reason is often that we are not able to meet up as often as before, and there may be times where we can’t respond at all. But being completely forgotten or even abandoned is very hurtful.

A simple message or a phone call means a lot, because it shows, that you still care about us.

It may sometimes take a while for us to answer, but that doesn’t mean, that we don’t appreciate the message. It just means, that sometimes our symptoms hinder us from responding on time.

If you want to call your chronically ill friend, then scheduling the phone call in advance can be very helpful. We might not always have the energy for a phone call, so it can be helpful for us to know, when to set aside some time for it. I personally appreciate phone calls or voice messages a lot, because it allows me to chat with my friend and stay in touch without having to leave my house.

And if you can, please visit us instead of meeting somewhere outside. We often can’t meet outside as much as we would like, but having a friend over, even if it’s just for a few minutes, can really make your day. Many chronically ill people struggle with loneliness because of their limited energy, so getting visits at home can be a great help!

I love having my friends over to cook together (which is also a great help if I don’t have lots of energy to cook for myself!) or to just hang out and watch a movie. Again, make sure to schedule the visit in advance, since spontaneous visits might not work for us if we have a high symptom day or are low on spoons. It can help a lot if we can prepare for the visit in time.

If you really want to show, that you care about your friend and that you do not shy away from them, then message them on a regular basis. A simple text is enough, it’s that easy! But sometimes the simplest things can be the most effective. Getting regular messages even if we can’t see each other that often, signals, that we are not forgotten and that we are in your thoughts, and that can really mean the world.

A real friend is someone who shows up, who listens and who doesn't judge.

How have your friends helped you in times when you needed them? What are the things that made the biggest difference for you? Feel free to leave a comment!

If you found this article helpful, then please don’t hesitate to share it with your friends!

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Also, find me on social media @rea.strawhill

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1 Comment

Michael Scott
Michael Scott
Jul 30, 2021

Another awesome article. Beautifully written and containing some excellent information.

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