How can you be a friend to a person with a terminal illness? First of all, consider the type of relationship you have with this friend: are you extremely close, or more of an acquaintance? This will help you decide which caring act to display.
The ideas below come from several sources, including our book The Compassionate Congregation, as well as my own personal experiences in pastoral caregiving. Not all ideas will apply, but the most important thing is to just pick one and do something to show you care.
Don’t feel you must talk. A really ill person may not be able or willing to talk, but he or she will still take comfort in just knowing that you are there. Ask a nurse or a family member what the appropriate length of time should be for your visit. Your friend may only be able to tolerate a few minutes.
Take a small object for your friend to hold. Maybe a small glass heart or a cross (to remind the person that he or she is loved by you and by God.) Choose an item that doesn’t require a lot of manual dexterity to hold.
Share your genuine feelings. Don’t bounce into the room with false cheerfulness. It’s ok to admit that you’re not sure what to do . “I would like to help you, but I don’t know how,” is a straightforward expression of concern. Don’t play games and be evasive. Even children can cope better when people talk to them honestly. I remember reading this advice from pastor and author Chuck Swindoll: “Admit your honest feelings. If the news stunned you, say so. If you don’t know what to say, say just that. If you suddenly feel tears coming, cry. If you are overwhelmed with pity and compassion, admit it. When you allow your true feelings to show, you give [the sick person] permission to also ‘let go’ and express their honest feelings.”
Use the power of touch. This is one of those suggestions in which you must decide: would your friend feel comfortable with your touch? If so, go ahead and hold your friend’s hand. Human contact is what sick people need, but rarely receive. It’s more difficult than you would imagine to touch someone hooked up to ten intravenous lines and a respirator, so you might not be sure how to proceed. Always check with a nurse if you are unsure whether this will be okay for your friend. Some people find foot massage relaxing. Others want their arms and legs exercised gently.
It may be necessary to try alternative communication. If your friend can’t speak, ask him to squeeze your hand to answer questions—one squeeze is no, two is yes. But even with this kind of conversation, take care not to overdo it.
Play music. Consider giving your friend a CD player and some quiet soul-soothing music to drown out the sounds of the technology used in modern medicine.
Bring small appropriate gifts. Flowers may not be allowed, but scented lotions and creams or a good lip balm can provide a different kind of relief. A small potpourri to scent the sickroom is wonderful—provided your friend is not suffering from a respiratory ailment.
Help to take care of the family members who are standing by. As a friend, you will probably come and go, but family members may be maintaining a round-the-clock vigil. Take newspapers, magazines, cookies or muffins, anything that will help them get through the long hours of waiting.
Donate your frequent flyer miles or give an airline gift certificate to a family member of a sick friend who lives far away.
Keep in touch through regular emails, texting, or Care Page website postings. Say something. Say anything. Let him or her know they are not alone.
Be a good listener. People will tell you what they are ready to talk about. Sickness can be a very lonely journey. When Jesus was agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane He didn’t want to face death alone. He asked the disciples to wait and pray with Him, but they fell asleep. What good were they?
Some comments which may encourage the suffering person to share his or her feelings are: “I know that you are hurting, and I really care about that. If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen,” or “I can’t even imagine how much you must hurt or how lonely you must feel or how devastated you must be?” or “What do you feel like talking about today?”
Treat a dying person as a human being. Sometimes we treat a dying person in such a way that we make it harder on that person emotionally. We shut the people up in hospitals, whisper behind their backs, and deprive them of all the things that had made their lives rich. Familiar things are important and bring a sense of normalcy to an otherwise unfamiliar situation.
Spending time with someone who is terminally ill makes some of us uncomfortable, and that’s understandable. My hope for you is that these practical tips will help give you something specific to do for a friend in need. God Bless.
For more reading and resources, please visit our Being a Friend to the Terminally Ill page.