Healthy Habits

5 Ways to be a Better Friend to a Sick Friend

When a person falls ill, it's vitally important for their ongoing welfare that friends continue to provide the qualities of friendship‑presence, support, comfort, encouragement, confidence, loyalty and hope. by Victor Parachin
Two women smiling.

I developed a chronic illness that physicians can’t seem to get handle on. It’s been a very challenging time in my life, and, on top of this, I have to admit a great disappointment because I feel like I’ve been abandoned by people I thought were my friends.  


A friend’s illness can make the best of us ill at ease. When that friend feels neglected, it can create a spiritual crisis along with a physical one.

“If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.”

 (1 John 3:17, The Message) 

When a person falls ill, it’s vitally important for their ongoing welfare that friends continue to provide the qualities of friendship‑presence, support, comfort, encouragement, confidence, loyalty and hope. Here are five ways to be a better friend to a friend who is sick. 

1. Ask if you can visit.

Don’t make the assumption that a sick friend wants and will welcome visitors.  While many appreciate being surrounded by caring friends, some do not want to have people around when they don’t feel well or look well. Simply call, text or email asking if a visit would be welcomed. When a friend of mine came down with a mysterious illness which caused a great deal of physical and emotional discomfort, I emailed expressing support and asked if she wanted me to visit.  “Right now, I prefer my own company,” she said gently. If the answer is “yes,” then ask when would be a good time. Never stop by unannounced.  Don’t overstay a visit.  Twenty minutes is usually enough. Less if the patient is tired or in pain.

2. Say the right things.

The Bible reminds us: “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (Ephesians 4:29, NLT). Many who have struggled with an illness testify that family and friends come in two categories: those who say the right things and those who say the wrong things. Statements like these can be hurtful and frustrating to someone dealing with a medical condition:

  • Everything is going to be OK. (You don’t know this and it’s false reassurance)
  • You have to stay positive. (Telling a person how to feel and think conveys judgment)
  • Have you gotten other opinions or tried this alternative therapy? (This discounts the work done by patients and caregivers)
  • Is it terminal? (It’s up to the friend how much to disclose)
  • How did you get this? (This sounds like the patient is to blame)
  • Everything happens for a reason. (Such false reassurance is unsound and overlooks a friend’s need for empathy.)

Words such as these convey friendship and support:

  • I hate seeing you suffer.
  • You’re important to me.
  • I don’t know what to say but I care about you.
  • I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating this is for you.
  • I want to support you in any way that I can.
  • I’m sorry you are going through this.
  • I love you.

3. Offer something specific.

Those dealing with a major illness already feel vulnerable and have lost some independence. They do not need the added responsibility of responding to such offers as “Call me if you need anything.” “Let me know if there’s something I can do.” “Tell me what I can do to help.”  You’re more likely to receive a positive response if you offer something specific.  One woman, exhausted from cancer treatments, readily accepted a friend’s offer to walk her dogs daily.  “At the time, I could barely walk from my bedroom to the kitchen because I was so drained from the chemotherapy.  So when my neighbor called and offered to walk my two dogs daily, I jumped at the chance for them to get outside exercise and not be trapped inside with me the whole time.  This good man walked my dogs every day for weeks before I finally had the energy to walk with them.”

Other creative ways of helping include:

  • Bringing in or having a meal delivered one night a week
  • Covering or subsidizing the cost of child care if young children are involved
  • Donating frequent flyer miles if the sick person needs treatment in another city
  • Purchasing weekly housecleaning services for a month or so
  • Driving the friend to and from medical appointments
  • Providing and paying for an in–home massage
  • Buying a TV streaming subscription service for your friend

4. Avoid giving medical advice.

No matter how well intentioned, offering medical advice is often frustrating. Vincent Lee, who was diagnosed with cancer, expressed his frustration about advice in an article he wrote for a community newspaper:  “The primary reason I don’t tell new acquaintances [about my illness] is that so many people unthinkingly and offensively try to be amateur oncologists as soon as they find out.  My oncologists have been Harvard clinical professors. But somehow people who are not MDs and have never seen my scans or read my charts start telling me what to do, where to do, who to see for treatment.”

5. Don’t visit if you can’t handle silence.

That wisdom is offered by Letty Cottin Pogrebin in her book “How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick.” “There’s a chance that all your sick friends want from you is to ‘be there’” she explains.  “Are you prepared to sit at their bedside without talking? Do you think you can absorb someone else’s despair without succumbing to it? Can you let your friend ventilate without feeling compelled to problem solve? People who give good visits are good listeners… They know when to comfort and when to keep still.”

When you reach out to a sick friend, do so with confidence. Your support and encouragement will be precisely what helps your friend through the most difficult of days.

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