HealthAgenda

Mental Health

Supporting a loved one through a tough diagnosis

It’s always distressing when someone you care about gets sick. Here are some strategies for taking care of them, and yourself.


Jocelyn Brewer | Psychologist 
March 2017

Although most of us have some awareness about public health issues and chronic diseases, we tend think of them as something that ‘happens to other people’. So we’re often unprepared for the reality of someone we love receiving a difficult medical diagnosis.

It not only turns life upside down for the person facing the news, there is a ripple effect onto families and friends as they struggle to understand and accept the implications, treatment options and prognosis. If the prognosis is unclear, this will add to the emotional distress and uncertainty

We all have our own way of dealing with bad news, but there are ways to make it easier.

Remind yourself there’s no right or wrong way

There is no ‘normal’ response. Many people’s first reactions are anger and disbelief, but bad health news can trigger a range of responses which vary depending on our coping skills, previous experience of illness, and the support we receive to work through the news.

Some people catastrophise and predict the worst, while others focus on fact-finding and an over-reliance on ‘Dr Google’ to come up with a solution. Going into helping overdrive – immediately planning and preparing for medical procedures – and denial or minimising the impact of the illness are also common.

Three actions to be mindful of:

  • take time to reflect on your own experiences of illness, grief or loss and how they’ve impacted you
  • become aware of your own coping style and skills – what tools and strategies are helpful and what areas could you improve or develop? Some people are practically driven, but find talking or being emotionally present difficult
  • try not to judge yourself for your thoughts or reactions, which could be resistance to the news or the next steps.

Get the right information

It’s easy to fall into the bottomless web of information online, so be sure to distinguish medical information from reputable sources from anecdotes, personal blogs or opinion pieces. They may resonate, but they may not provide accurate or local information.

Always discuss your ideas and anything you’re unclear about with a doctor and seek a second opinion if you feel you need more professional advice.

If your loved one is happy for you to do so, you might want to attend medical appointments with them. It can be hard to take in complex information – some people find it’s useful to have someone with them to listen and help ask questions.

Offer support

Accepting support is difficult for some, they may feel like a burden and that they need to cope and manage alone. Knowing how to manage these boundaries and waiting for permission to help while maintaining a supportive presence is key.

Support can take many forms – from the logistical and practical, to the emotional and spiritual. It’s most important for you to support your loved one in the way that works best for them. This could be:

  • offering transport to appointments and help with shopping or errands
  • helping out with day-to-day chores like cleaning or food preparation, pet-care and home maintenance 
  • communicating updates to family and friends 
  • providing emotional support by just being present – like having a cup of tea or watching a movie together, doing crafts or other activities.

Seek support for yourself

It’s easy to focus so much on your loved one that you forget you need support too. If you find your wellbeing is significantly impacted, for example, you’re having issues sleeping, your appetite is affected or you're ruminating over negative thoughts it might be helpful to seek professional psychological support.

Depending on the illness and your location there are a range of support networks you can join to share the collective wisdom and coping skills of those in similar situations. This can be a powerful way to remain hopeful and empowered. To find one, do an internet keyword search of the illness or disease, ‘support’ and your state.

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