How to support a loved one facing serious illness

When someone you love is facing a serious illness, it can be difficult to know how to provide appropriate support.

Avoid tiptoeing on eggshells, offering awkward back-pats or ‘get-well-soon’ platitudes – this practical advice will help you know when and how to step up when it matters most.  

When Tutti Bennett (pictured) had a routine mammogram that turned into a grade-3 breast cancer diagnosis, two thoughts entered her head. The first was typical – the I-never-thought-it-would-happen-to-me shock of being told you’re facing a life-threatening illness. 

The second was probably less so. 

‘I knew that no matter what, I wanted to be a beacon of strength for my family,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want crying or commiserations. I wanted everyone around me to support me with love, humour and positivity,’ she says. 

Five years later, Tutti’s back to good health, her optimistic disposition having played a significant role in her recovery. But not everyone has the fortitude or inclination to be upbeat when staring down the barrel of mortality. 

Open your ears

Director of the Grief Recovery Institute of Australia & New Zealand, Amanda Lambros, says it may seem simple, but one of the most powerful things you can do for someone facing a health trauma is to listen. 

‘Don’t say “I know how you feel” and try to turn their diagnosis into a story about you,’ she says. ‘Instead ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?”’ 

It’s equally important that your loved one doesn’t feel pressured into talking about their situation. ‘Don’t push them; they need to be able to go at their own pace,’ advises Lambros. ‘Opening up that level of communication is really important.’ 

Offer help… and mean it

There’s nothing as insincere as a flippant ‘Call me if you need anything’ followed by weeks of radio silence. Lambros suggests that it helps to be specific when offering help, as it relieves the burden on the person asking. Ask if you can give specific support – whether it’s giving them a lift to the doctor, cooking meals or just taking them for a coffee. 

‘But never offer anything,’ she says, ‘unless you’re prepared to follow through.’

Small gestures make a big difference

When travel writer Anthony Bianco was diagnosed with a one-in-ten-million cancer at the age of 21, it was the seemingly small things his family and friends did that got him through. 

‘It was scary at the time, as the tumour in my chest was advanced and my doctor didn’t think I’d make it,’ he recalls. ‘I had incredible support from my family and friends. I call them 'my guardian angels' as I'm sure they're the reason I'm still around 22 years later.’ 

Anthony’s tip for supporting people? ‘You don’t need to understand – you just need to be there,’ he says. ‘What you might think is small and trivial means everything to the person on the receiving end. A simple text, phone call, or taking someone out for the day sends a powerful message that these people want me to stick around.’

Be open and honest

It goes without saying that a first reaction to hearing someone you love is facing a life-threatening illness may be to shed a few tears. 

‘Everyone grieves differently, so be genuine in how you feel,’ says Lambros. ‘Ask them, “How can I help you in a way that will make you feel as supported as possible?” Some people might want positivity, other people might say give me a hug and cry with me. It’s about understanding what they want.’ 

Learn to hug properly

If you think a hug is as simple as making a circle with your arms around the person while giving them a few deft slaps on the back, think again. 

‘Don’t let go just because you feel uncomfortable,’ says Lambros. The powerful psychological and physical benefits of a hug have been well documented in books and studies, she says, and too many people are afraid to do it. 

‘You might think, what if I hug you and you start to cry?’ she says. ‘But remember, it’s not about you. Hold them, allow them to cry and only release them when they’re ready to be let go.’ 

No regrets

The thought of losing someone you love is as painful as it is surreal, and the key to coping in the aftermath is to ensure nothing is left unsaid. 

‘One of the most difficult things about loss is how we assess our relationship with a person once they’ve gone – the things we wish we’d said or done differently,’ Lambros explains. ‘If you have the opportunity, let them know how you feel about them and the impact they’ve had on your life.’ 

As for the idea that time heals all wounds, Lambros insists it’s a fallacy. ‘Time doesn’t heal wounds – actions do,’ she says. ‘Talking about it makes it better. Being social and not isolated makes it better. The most important thing is understanding what you’re capable of.’ 

Balance Blog Team

Here at Balance, we are all about celebrating life. The Balance Blog Team are dedicated to bringing you the latest expert advice in fitness, wellbeing, finance and nutrition, all with aim of helping you live your life to fullest.