Loved Ones: Lend Us Your Ears

Posted on: June 25th, 2010 by
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This posting is geared to those of us who know and possibly love someone struggling with a serious medical condition, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and so on. The list goes on and on.

Whatever the condition, though, they all have one thing in common: the afflicted person needs support from people — from acquaintances to his or her nearest and dearest friends to caregivers.

I have been unfortunate enough to be on both sides of the spectrum. As a cancer patient, I needed emotional support. Many people in my life obliged, cheering me on, but I was disappointingly surprised to find some close “friends” avoided me, causing me more pain than the cancer diagnosis itself.

Now I avoid them.

Shortly after my last chemotherapy treatment, a friend in my breast cancer support group got a recurrence, and I helped by taking her to treatments and keeping her company. The last words she heard from me before she died at the age of 47 was “I love you.”

Recently, a close friend was diagnosed with Leukemia, and luckily, her prognosis is decent. All I can do is hope she goes into remission. I want to be there for her physically, but I can’t because I’m getting over bronchitis, and she has a compromised immune system. Instead, we talk on the phone regularly and I send her e-mails to lift her spirits. I told her, “I love you.”

That’s what you do for someone important in your life. You dig down deep for courage and support them when they are down and need you the most. You say the things you feel but normally wouldn’t want to say. And you do what you can for that very special person in your life.

Below is a list highlighting the do’s and don’ts when someone you know is dealing with a serious medical condition.

  • Don’t tell the person that at least he or she looks good. The afflicted person doesn’t want to hear it.
  • Don’t tell him or her to think positively. It’s hard to be Mary Poppins when coping with a serious diagnosis.
  • Listen. I mean really listen. Instead of doing all the talking, allow the patient to express his/her feelings, however it makes you feel.
  • If you don’t know what to say, just say something like: “I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers” or “I’m there for you if you need me.”
  • If you don’t feel comfortable talking to the individual, send a card or a short e-mail. Patients want to know that you are thinking of them, and the smallest kindness means a lot to them and will be remembered.
  • If you are visiting the person in a hospital, advocate for the patient if needed. It may be as simple as asking a nurse to bring iced water or to change an IV or to make sure a meal is being delivered on time.
  • Bring a good book to the hospital because if the patient is sleeping, and had earlier expressed that it’s acceptable for you to be there while he/she sleeps, just read by the patient’s bedside. This can be quite comforting to the patient.

These are just a few of the ways you can lighten the afflicted person’s load. Truth be told, we all find ourselves on one or both sides of the spectrum currently or eventually. When we are on the side of the helper, it behooves us to be courageous and be there for our friends and relatives. It’s about listening and allowing someone else to share his or her emotional pain with you.

And I can think of no greater honor.

Beth L. Gainer is a professional writer and has published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on her breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. She writes about a potpourri of topics, including motherhood and her Chinese adoption experience at, and her cat Hemi blogs at Beth teaches writing and literature at Robert Morris University in the Chicago area. She has a guest posting on The World’s Strongest Librarian at can be contacted at and Photobucket

This blog posting is an excerpt from my book in progress, Calling the Shots: Coaching Yourself Through the Medical System. Stay in loop for when it comes out. Subscribe to the blog in upper righthand corner.

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