How to Support a Friend Who is Ill

Kriston Wenzelby Kriston Wenzel, LBSW, CT

It’s hard to know exactly what to do when a friend is facing an illness. You can feel stuck in how to “be” around your friend—not knowing what to do or say, or if you can even help. You also may have many questions about his or her illness that you may even be unsure if they’re appropriate to ask. It’s completely normal to feel this way.

Being prepared and knowing what to expect can help lessen feelings of helplessness—and allow you to support your friend to the best of your ability. Ask yourself: If you were in a similar position, how would you want to be treated?

The most important thing to remember is your friend is still the same person they were before the diagnosis or illness. Something as simple as just listening to your friend, without providing feedback or comparisons, can greatly reduce his or her burdens while also allowing you the opportunity to understand what your friend is going through. This will also help you become more compassionate and gentler toward your friend and his or her situation.

The following tips offers practical suggestions on how to support a friend who is ill.

What You Should Know When a Friend is Ill

  • It’s important to know that when someone is ill, they may not look ill. There are many types of illnesses and even the same diagnosis can look different from person to person. Even serious illness can be invisible.
  • Recognize that you don’t need to know every single detail of the illness and the treatment. The person who is ill might not fully understand it all either, which can be very scary. It’s up to the person and their family to decide how much information they want to share about the illness.
  • A person who is ill can have a wide range of emotions. The fear of the unknown and the reality of learning you are ill can be a major blow. Expect your friend’s mood and feelings to fluctuate. Try to be understanding and compassionate with your friend through the ups and downs.
  • Expect your friend, at times, to laugh, have fun and do the things he or she did before the illness. The person continues to be the same self and wants to keep living life as normally as possible.

What Your Friend Might be Feeling

  • I feel angry. Why is this happening to me?
  • I’m sick of people asking me questions.
  • I feel something but don’t know how to describe it.
  • I’m sick of everyone bugging me.
  • I just want everything to be how it was.
  • Everyone always wants me to talk, but I don’t always feel like talking.
  • I just want to be normal.
  • I want to do what my friends are doing.
  • I don’t understand why this happened to me.
  • There are some questions I want to answer and some that I don’t. There are questions I don’t even know how to answer.

Ways to Offer Support

  • Talk to the person who is ill. Let them know that you are here for him or her, even if you don’t know the exact words to say.
  • Don’t worry so much about saying the wrong thing. There are no magic words to make your friend feel better but knowing that friends care will mean a lot.
  • Tell your friend you are there to help and follow through if/when the person does ask for help.
  • Just be with them. Be present.
  • Listen. Listen. Listen.
  • Include your friend in the same things you always have.
  • Invite them to spend time with you and other friends.
  • Respect that your friend may want to have alone time now and then.
  • Watch for behavior that is out of the ordinary. You may need to enlist the help of others.

It’s OK to not have all the answers. Do your best to support your friend in the way you would want to be supported. Just being with your friend and following his or her lead can mean so much in this tender time. If you need support, we can help. Contact us or call (800) 237-4629.

Kriston Wenzel, LBSW, CT, is a grief specialist at Hospice of the Red River Valley. What she enjoys most about her work is having the chance to help individuals and families find their strength and resiliency during such a difficult time in their lives.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or


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