How to Help a Friend Through a Health Crisis

I have epilepsy. My doctors diagnosed it when I was 8 years old; I have the full-body, fall-on-the-ground kind. It freaked out my parents. My neurologist prescribed medication, and I’d only had two seizures since then, until this past June. I was away at a work conference, in line to register. The next thing I remember, the paramedics are hovering over me, telling me that I just had a seizure.

It sounds cliche, but most of us do think we’re invincible. I certainly did. After 30 years, I assumed that my seizures were behind me. I take care of myself. I eat well. I run about 40 miles a week. I take my medication religiously. But none of that matters. My seizures are back, and I had another one a few days ago. There’s nothing I can do to stop it.

That’s true for all of us. We can’t stop health problems. Our friends, our family, our own bodies get sick or hurt, and our lives change forever. We can only work with it. What do you do when a friend needs help? Here’s some advice from someone who’s gone through it.

Be there

Sick people make us nervous. I think the sight of someone with health problems forces us to confront our own frailty. Or maybe we are just unsure. We don’t know what to do, and we don’t want to make anything worse.

Helping someone isn’t about you. The important thing is to be there. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Take them out for lunch some time, buy them a drink, or have a simple chat, something to let them know you care.

When I woke up from the seizure in June, all I saw were the paramedics pulling me into the ambulance. They asked the standard neurological questions. What day is it? Who’s the president? I had no answers. I would have been terrified if a colleague hadn’t stayed with me the whole time I was in the emergency room. Just being there was enough to keep me level.

Stick to it

Health problems can mess with your head. Personalities can change, and your friend could get mean, needy, or whiney. They withdraw, almost hide, even from the people they love. Don’t abandon them because it’s hard or upsetting. They needs you, even if they’re a jerk about it.

It can hurt when someone you love withdraws, but their pain isn’t about you. Don’t give up.

Take emotional cues from your friend

Just because I’m having health problems doesn’t mean that I’m upset about it. I’ve had many well-meaning people approach me with a soft voice, asking, “How are you feeling?” They use that funeral director voice, soft with empathy. Ugh. I’m feeling fine. Doing great. Please don’t treat me like I’m dying.

Read your friend’s emotions and treat them accordingly. If they say that they’re fine, treat them that way. If they say they’re depressed, make some quiet time to listen to them. If they’re feeling alone, spend some time together. We do this every day, but a crisis can make us lose our heads. Our responses are more about our emotions than reading the other person’s. Hold off on your own worry until later.  

Offer your help

Sometimes, when people get hurt or get sick, they need a little help. About seven years ago, I broke my arm. It wasn’t that big a deal, except I couldn’t cook at all. I couldn’t even stir a pot. I lived on crappy frozen food and microwave meals for six weeks. It would have been amazing to get a pot of soup or some frozen lasagna.

The DMV says that I shouldn’t drive for six months after a seizure, so that means I won’t get behind the wheel until March. Everything else is fine, but travel takes a lot longer than it used to. The people who’ve helped me out the most are the ones who called to ask whether I needed a ride. They offered specific help for a specific problem. That’s what works best. Instead of saying, “Let me know if you need something,” which puts the burden on the sick person rather than on you, offer to help in a specific way with a specific timeframe.

Most of us don’t know many people with major health problems. But the older we get, the more likely someone near us will need a little help. I’m fortunate to have great friends and a strong support network who are there when I need them.

That’s the person you want to be, the one who is there when your friend needs someone most. These guidelines will help you be the person you want to be, so you can help your friend through any health problem.

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