Over the years, I have seen people coming in to see me with all kinds of issues and concerns. Not long ago, I saw a few clients coming in with a different kind of complaint. They were not so concerned about themselves, but were worried about a dear friend or family member going through a critical illness. This particular woman stated that she wanted to be supportive for her friend, yet was concerned about being too pushy or intrusive.she just wasn’t sure how to handle her involvement. First I told her how lucky her friend was to have such a kind and compassionate friend as she. Then we discussed the challenges facing a support system when someone you care about receives a life-threatening diagnosis. I thought this was a very important topic and worthy of this article.

When someone gets a critical diagnosis, whatever that may be, they often go through the same stages of grief as one who is dying, even if that is not the case. Just the diagnosis itself, can create shock and disbelief. It can make the individual feel vulnerable and unsafe as well as fearful of what the future holds for them. The Kubler-Ross model, often used to describe the grieving process, states that many people go through several different stages of grief when facing death. It starts with denial, then anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. Not everyone goes through all these stages, and the order may vary, but it gives you an idea what your friend may be experiencing following his or her traumatic diagnosis or event. Even if they are not facing a terminal illness, just the shock of surviving an accident, or a serious diagnosis, can also trigger a grief reaction. While they are not grieving the loss of life, they are grieving the loss of feeling safe and invulnerable, and that can affect a person emotionally as much as the process of healing physically.

Most of us go through life with a kind of belief or attitude that if we do our job, work hard, be responsible and follow all the rules; we will stay safe and nothing too devastating will happen to us. Most believe that they only need to start worrying about degenerative diseases threatening their life once they get older and become frail. Although we all know that this is not necessarily true, it is the story most people tell themselves, a kind of universal denial in order to feel safe and powerful. So whether you get this diagnosis, or if you are in a serious accident, or you lost your house in a fire, whatever the dire situation is, it can send you into a tailspin of shock, fear, denial and depression until you come to accept the situation and learn how to deal with it.

When you are the friend, sister or cousin of this person, you may find yourself reacting on two different levels. On the one hand you may feel shocked yourself hearing about your friend, you will probably feel sad for them and worried and want to be supportive. On another level, this can bring on a lot of fear and stress for you. If you, like most, of us, have been living under the illusion that you are safe and expect to stay that way, what do you say to yourself now that your closest friend has been diagnosed with a critical illness? This can create a dilemma as on the one hand you want to be supportive and there for her, but on the other hand seeing your friend, sister or colleague shrinking in front of you, becoming depressed and vulnerable, or witnessing their reactions to the chemo, radiation, or medical visits can create so much stress and fear in your, that you may find yourself looking for any reason to avoid dealing with her and her needs. Her vulnerability reminds you that you can also become vulnerable, and who wants to be reminded of that? For this reason, you may find yourself using any excuse to avoid dealing directly with her needs. You may feel guilty but you are so paralyzed with fear and anxiety, that you feel you are more ready to deal with the guilt than walk with your friend through this mine field of anxiety and stress.

The good news is there are many ways that you can be there for your friend or
family member. If you can’t bring yourself to go with her to the doctor, or the hospital, you can
- offer to watch her children so she has time to rest
- go shopping with her or for her
- take her out to a movie, to distract her
- explain to her that you are not abandoning her but the situation is bringing up a lot of
stress in you and this is the best you can do for now
- ask her how she is and don’t accept “fine” as a real answer.
- Tell her you are so sorry that she has to go through this
- Make her a supper, so she doesn’t have to cook
- Take her out for a walk
- Make phone calls for her

What not to say:
- don’t tell her you know of other people surviving this illness. She doesn’t care about other
people. She may be still in shock or denial mode
- don’t tell her to be positive. She will feel angry and think that you are minimizing her
- don’t tell her it will be fine. You don’t know that and neither does she
- don’t tell her she has to be strong. She is not feeling strong right now, she feels terrified.

For people facing these challenges, it’s not just about the right doctor, the right physiotherapist, or treatments, it’s also dealing with the emotional impact that this situation has placed on the individual. They are feeling overwhelmed, lost, scared, exhausted, depressed, and terrified. They are not fine but might say so because they know or feel that is what you want to hear. The truth is the one who needs the help is embarrassed or shy or afraid to ask you, in case you can’t handle it. This is the time when you need to raise the bar, and be there for her or him. Isn’t that the true meaning of friendship and family?

Author's Bio: 

Rhonda Rabow, M.A.

Author's Bio Rhonda Rabow is an author and a psychotherapist living in Montreal, Quebec Canada. She has over 25 years experience counseling individuals, couples and families facing a variety of life challenges; from parenting, grief, depression, and self-esteem issues, to conflict resolution and marriage counseling. Her approach is empowerment and she accomplishes this by helping her clients find solutions to their problems and teaching them the skills and tools they need to feel back in control of their lives. She has also recently published an e-book called, "Discover the 3 secrets to living happily ever after".