How to Support Someone With a Serious Illness

Donna Photo7 tips detailing ways to support someone who is dealing with a serious illness

By Donna Cardillo, RN 

When someone receives a diagnosis of cancer or other serious illness, some friends and extended family members sometimes distance themselves from that person and his/her immediate family. The reasons may vary but some folks simply don’t know what to do or say, so they avoid contact altogether. This reaction causes pain, sorrow and a sense of alienation for the person who is ill and his or her family.

Here are 7 ways to support someone during serious illness.

1. Let them know you’re thinking about them but respect their need for space and privacy. Constant calling for updates can sometimes be intrusive and overwhelming. Some family members and people with serious illness use online programs such as to keep interested parties informed.

2. Send an occasional card or e-mail just to let them know they are in your thoughts or prayers. But don’t expect to get a response or acknowledgement. Many people make contact upon first hearing the news but then fall away.

3. Consider sending a gift basket of appropriate and practical items such as relaxation or music CDs, lotion, a journal, note cards, fruit, etc.

4. Make a sincere offer, if appropriate, to drive or accompany someone for medical appointments and treatments. The ill person may not be up to driving and/or may need to have an advocate with them to communicate with healthcare providers, take notes, and so on. That person’s regular caregiver may need relief, too.

5. If you’re nearby, help out in other ways by occasionally dropping off a meal (mention ahead of time that it’s coming if possible); go grocery shopping or run other errands; pay for a cleaning crew to go in (with approval) or offer to do some cleaning yourself. Help fold the laundry or walk the dog, and so on.

6. While many of us have a tendency to want to provide upbeat messages and offer solutions to every problem presented, sometimes the best thing you can do is listen and quietly support with your presence – whether physical or virtual, via e-mail etc.

7. And while supporting the person with the illness is so important, it is also important to support his or her caregiver/immediate family members. This is something that is often overlooked. This is someone(s) whose world is also turned upside down and can use some words of encouragement, respite, help, support, and caring concern to help them through the illness as well.

It takes a village to support someone with a serious illness and his or her family members/caregivers. There are many different ways you can help and support and just stay in touch. Everyone is a little different as is every situation, so take your cues from the person/people you are trying to support. And if you’re concerned about being intrusive, don’t be afraid to ask if what you’re doing is “too much.” Sometimes “too much” is better than too little.

Donna Cardillo, RN travels the world helping nurses to be happy in their careers and to reach their full potential. She is fiercely passionate about nursing and about life in general. You may know Donna as “Dear Donna” at Nursing Spectrum and NurseWeek magazines where she writes a regular column and doles out daily online career advice at She is also an “Expert” Blogger at – the first and only nurse blogging there! Donna is author of 3 books: Your First Year as a Nurse, The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses, and a Daybook for Beginning Nurses.  She has received numerous awards and recognitions but is most proud of being named a Diva in Nursing by the Institute for Nursing in NJ for outstanding achievements and excellence in practice. Donna has been referred to as the Ann Landers and the Dr. Phil of the nursing profession. Regardless of who she’s compared to, there’s no denying that she has her own unique style, indomitable spirit, and uproarious sense of humor.

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