How to deal when someone close to you gets sick

How do you support a loved one?

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2021 has been a hard year for many of us. The pandemic has continued, ravaging families, isolating us and affecting our long-term health, both mental and physical. If you or someone you know has been having a rough year, let me introduce to you Emily McDowell.

She is a writer, illustrator, speaker, teacher, entrepreneur and a friend of mine. Her whole life she has had a knack for seeing what’s going on behind the scenes and helping people communicate. In 2013 she founded her own greeting card business to help people with the awkward moments, relationships, and situations that they have to go through. 

It was my pleasure to get the chance to sit down with her and pick her brain about overcoming illness, becoming an entrepreneur, and battling burnout. She also gave some excellent tips for how to support someone who is going through a hard time, and I’d like to share them with you. 


It’s OK to Be Awkward

When we find out a friend or loved one is sick, especially if it’s terminal, it can be hard to know what to say. Do you try to make light of the situation? Start crying? Tell them it’ll be ok, even though you know it won’t? 

Last year my father was battling cancer (he’s now in remission after a full year of treatments —Yay!— ) and personally I had a hard time supporting him the way I felt I should. I used to feel awkward and very aware of everything I was saying, I worried about slipping up and making him feel worse than he already did. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes I even started to feel that no interaction at all would have been better.

Well, Emily is here to call the BS on that one. ‘Give yourself a break!’ She says. These circumstances aren’t light and fun, and it’s hard to know what to say. Being awkward is normal. As long as you are showing up, that’s what’s important.

If you accidentally said something that hurt the other person or made them feel uncomfortable, call yourself out and apologize. Let them know you don’t know exactly what to say but you want to be there for them.


It’s OK to Stay Silent


Sometimes silence is the best way to support. It’s tempting to feel like in these situations that we have to say the exact right thing, because being a problem solver is so valued in our society.  We need people to solve problems in our lives but there are some problems that can’t be solved. You can’t solve someone’s illness or grief and in many cases, you can’t even make it better. They are not looking for the magic solution. There isn’t one. The only thing you can do is bear witness to their pain. Just be there and be a shoulder to cry on and someone to listen if they feel ready to share their feelings.



Don’t fade away

With so much uncomfortability, sadness and awkwardness, it can be easy to fade away into the background, to stop showing up, and to inadvertently let yourself fade out of the picture. This is one of the worst things you can do because it is often interpreted as ‘you don’t care’. If the person doesn’t hear some kind of explanation, they start to fill in the blanks and what they fill in probably isn’t true. It can leave them questioning their worth and if they were really important to you. This can cause them extra stress, as not only are they losing their health/loved one/etc. but now their relationships are suffering and therefore their sense of normalcy. 



This is why it’s so important to check in, to keep showing up, and to ask how you can help or if they’d like to hang out or chat. They need your support, no matter how awkward, now more than ever.

When in doubt, sometimes a card can say what you can’t put into words. I would highly recommend checking out Emily’s website, https://emandfriends.com/

Hopefully, going into the New Year you won’t need to put any of this into practice, but if you do, I wish you the strength and courage to be there when you’re needed most. 

Be sure to listen to the full podcast episode here. 

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