How to Help a Friend Cope With Illness

Perhaps you were like me; you never really thought death or serious illness would happen to you or to someone you cared about deeply.  Then one day, you get the news.  Trust me, how you cope with it makes all the difference. I initially wrote this post months ago, but after hearing many stories of illness recently, I thought it would be fitting to share this story now.


My first experience with a serious illness happened in elementary school.  One night, I got a phone call from one of my best friends. She told me she had been admitted to the hospital.  I was worried, as my friend hadn’t been at school for a few days.  She shared with me that she had been diagnosed with diabetes and was really sick.

I was unsure of how to cope (i.e., help my friend), as I had never experienced a situation like this before. I knew for certain that I didn’t want her to go through this ordeal alone and wanted to help her in any way she needed.  Friends stick by one another through good and bad. The disease doesn’t just affect the person – it influences their relationships too! It took adjustment from both of us, but we learned a lot about how to help each other persist during times of trouble. We became better friends as a result.   I’m happy to say that my friend is still happy and healthy to this day.

If you are experiencing a friend who is coping with a life-threatening illness (i.e., cancer, diabetes, severe depression, eating disorder, etc.) here are some tips for you:

  • Don’t leave. Yes, you may have times where you pull away temporarily because you feel like you can’t deal with it. Or, your friend may pull away because they don't want to burden you.  But, be there for your friend! Let them have their distance (physical and emotional).  They'll connect with you again when they are ready. Distance can make the heart grow fonder.
  • Communicate. If you are nervous or concerned, be honest and share this with your friend.  Talk to them.  Remind them that if they need to talk, you are there for them.  Journalling can also help.
  • Social dynamics may change.  Your friend may not be able to participate in the same activities anymore.
  • Make sure you take time for yourself, too.  The illness won’t just influence your friend; the illness will impact you as well.
  • Stop the jealousy.  Your friend may forge new relationships, but you will still have a great bond with them.
  • Talk about issues. I remember being nervous about whether I could catch the disease, so I initially acted differently around my friend.  If you are feeling awkward or unsure, voice your concerns to your friend and/or a counselor/parent.
  • There is a possibility that your friend may die. Talk about this issue and have a support system for them. It is okay to cry with them;  just make sure they smile too!
  • Treat your friend with respect. They are just like you.
  • Most importantly, talk about things that are not disease-related.  Your friend is not just their disease. Love them for who they are on the inside.

These are some of the life lessons which I have learned through having friends and loved ones who have had life-threatening illnesses. The most important thing is to communicate so that you travel the journey together!


Have you experienced a friend/family member who has gone through a life-threatening illness?  How did you help them cope?  How did you cope with it?

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