The art of solace

Connecting with a chronically ill loved one

a hug for a loved one
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Being around a severely ill person, especially one who is facing a long-term recovery or who must live with a chronic condition, is not easy. It makes most of us deeply uncomfortable, even if we’ve known (and loved) the person for years. As a result, we either act in a way that makes us feel better, or we withdraw. Neither meets the needs of the patient.

The good news is, you can learn how to relate to chronically ill people. You can learn what to say and what not to say. You can create a relationship that brings comfort and peace of mind, even during a difficult time.

Here are some suggestions on how to feel more comfortable and confident around your ill loved one.

Don’t try to be a preacher, doctor, or therapist

Just be you. Patients can tell when you’re being phony, masking your feelings, or playing a role. And if your loved one detects that you’re putting up any sort of façade, he will begin to wonder what your true purpose is — for example, whether you might be hiding something important from him.

When you’re around someone who’s ill, you’ll do the most good if you focus on being genuine and real. For example, don’t feel that you have to put on a constant show of cheerfulness if you’re normally a blunt straight-shooter. And don’t feel that you need to suddenly “have all the answers.” Without being insensitive, let your natural mannerisms, feelings, quirks, and words shine through.

Don’t squelch uncomfortable conversations

Your chronically ill  loved one will probably bring up weighty topics that might make you uncomfortable, such as her fears, the pain she is in, and her worries about the future. Even if you’d rather not have a particular conversation, try not to respond with, for example: “Can’t you ever talk about anything pleasant? Don’t you get tired of complaining about the same stuff all the time?”

Remember, the patient deserves to talk even if you don’t want to hear or process what  she has to say. In fact, by squelching her concerns, you are sending the message that she doesn’t  matter, and you reinforce feelings of isolation and resentment. The best course of action is to listen as objectively as possible, with an open mind and encouraging attitude.

Don’t hesitate to call in spiritual reinforcement when it’s needed

Some questions that your loved one might ask are so deeply personal and so overwhelming that you don’t feel qualified to deal with them. When someone asks, for instance, “What happens after death?” or “Will I go to Heaven?” trying to answer him can do more harm than good.

You don’t want to inadvertently increase your loved one’s confusion or anxiety. When spiritual needs and questions arise, don’t be afraid to admit that you aren’t qualified to handle them. In this instance, please call a pastor, priest, or other spiritual leader, while remaining a confidant and source of support.

Let the patient cry

Even if you’re uncomfortable with weeping, don’t pressure your loved one to stop. Tears are a natural emotional release for emotions ranging from anger to sadness to fear, and they can be very therapeutic.

The best thing you can do for someone who is crying is to simply be present and listen if the person wants to speak. It may go against your nature, but refrain from interrupting with supportive statements. You can make those after the crying spell is over. At this point, your presence is the crucial thing. And after the tears are dried, encourage your loved one to talk about her feelings (unless, of course, she doesn’t want to).

Realize that it’s okay to say “no”

If you’re around someone who is ill, demands will be made of you. Especially if you are a caregiver, you are agreeing to do things the sick person can’t handle himself. It’s crucial to understand, though, that you can’t say yes to everything. While you may be the “healthy one,” you still have physical and mental limits.

It is much better to respond with a responsible “no” as opposed to an irresponsible “yes.” Saying no requires courage and conviction, and does not mean that you are weak or selfish. Just be sure to deliver your response with love. Explain your reasons and re-affirm how much you care for the patient.

Share bad news. Don’t “deliver” it.

Sick people are still entitled to hear the truth, and you have the ethical obligation to deliver it, even when it’s negative. And the manner in which you convey that truth is critical.

Whether the bad news relates to family drama, financial trouble, or the patient’s own illness, try not to present it as an idea that the other person will have to deal with on her own. In other words, don’t “tell and run.” This should  ideally be a gut-to-gut, heart-to-heart conversation. Therefore, it’s a good idea to put some prior thought into who should share the news and when the best time to do it might be. Make sure your loved one knows that you are a partner in working through and/or coming to terms with the situation.

Don’t take anger personally. Do respond constructively to it.

Anger is a natural human emotion, and seriously ill people have a lot to potentially feel angry about. Plus, their pain and energy levels might make them less patient or less able to handle stressful situations.

While you can’t control your loved one’s anger, you can control your own response. Make every effort to remain cool and collected, even if you have to pause for a few seconds or leave the room to keep your own stack from blowing. And after the episode is over, try to identify what really caused  the outburst so that you can avoid similar situations in the future. Refrain from squelching or downplaying your loved one’s anger since she has a right to express it, and since it may even be therapeutic.

Taking time to learn the art of giving solace is absolutely worth it. When you do all you can to make your time with the person productive and meaningful, you may gain great emotional and spiritual growth. And down the road, when you look back on this experience, you won’t wish you hadn’t squandered what could have been the richest, most real time you ever spent with your loved one.

Dr. Walter St. John is a retired college professor and administrator and is author of Solace: How Caregivers and Others Can Relate, Listen, and Respond Effectively to a Chronically Ill Person.

This article first appeared in the April 2012 issue of Minnesota Good Age. We may earn commissions via links on this page – at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support the site.