How to Help When Someone Is Experiencing Illness

How To Help When Someone is Experiencing Illness.

It’s so hard to know what to do and say when someone is experiencing illness.

I’ve been going through some health issues which resulted in two surgeries within a month. The recovery from these surgeries has been slow. During this process, people have been very supportive and loving. Here’s a list of ten things that have helped to lift my spirits, made me feel less alone, and/or helped my family.

Many of these apply to those experiencing grief as well.

Of course, every person is different. This is how I feel.


1. Brightly colored flowers and plants.

Sure, it’s a bit obvious. But, for me, it really did lift my spirits to have these bright pops of color around the house. One friend with a green thumb even planted some flowers in the front of my house while I was in the hospital. I get to see those cheery flowers each time I open the door.


2. Match my energy. Read my cues.

When visiting, pay attention to how it feels when you walk in. Prior to being sick, I didn’t really understand that noise and high energy can make you feel much worse. I tried to be mindful of this when working with hospice patients or in the hospital, but I know I slipped into my own world at times and came bouncing in a house that was more comfortable with quiet.

When visiting, test the waters. How does it feel when you walk in? How am I reacting to your energy? Watch my face, do I look like I’m in pain? You can still be yourself and joke around. I love to laugh! Just approach gently and read the room.


3. Food delivery from local restaurants.

A group of moms from my son’s school sent us a food delivery gift card. This has been so helpful to reduce the financial burden of mom not cooking, plus the ease of the process. Combining forces to create a larger gift card isn’t necessary; however it sure is nice to have to enter the information once and get several meals. 

A close friend of mine has ordered the same (favorite) meal sent to my husband and son every week. It included a Faygo Orange soda in a glass bottle which was especially fun for my 10-year-old.


4. Take my mom out of the house please.

Both my husband and I are from Michigan and we don’t have any family members living nearby. We have created a wonderful group of friends here in Southern California but they all have their incredibly busy lives to attend to.

My mom came to stay with us for several weeks after my second surgery. She helped in countless ways including child care for my son. However, when you aren’t feeling well, having a houseguest (even an incredibly helpful one) for an indefinite amount of time has its challenges. There’s less quiet. New routines are altered. There are accommodations in a family system that has already been making accommodations for the illness.

A close friend has taken my mom out kayaking and to lunch twice. This generous gift of her time also worked well to reduce the guilt I feel of having my mom do so much for us. While I know she wants to help, this Midwestern woman also enjoys being outside and doing fun things.


5. Text messages (emails/social media comments) of support.

Text messages that include phrases like, “May your surgeon bring some enlightenment or at the very least make you feel heard” are validating of my feelings and encouraging. Living in uncertainty and without answers is hard. It’s helpful for people to just be present within the process.

Phone calls are not the preferred mode of communication nowadays for most of us.

Being sick makes talking on the phone even less desirable. If you choose to call, leave a message of support and love. Know that you will likely get a text message response.


6. Check in on my husband. Give my son a hug.

It’s stressful for the whole family when someone is ill. My husband became my gatekeeper and information giver to family and friends. Everyone has asked about me. It’s really refreshing when someone also asks him how he’s doing. One friend took him to lunch and gave him a chance to talk about what this experience has been like for him. And pop culture and sports. Guy’s lunch.

7. Things dropped on my front porch without even ringing my bell.

One friend sent a text message saying “I left some spaghetti sauce and lemon bars on your porch for your boys.” I have enjoyed visitors here and there. Like many people going through illness (or difficult life situations like grief), I’m just not sure how I will be feeling at any time of the day. One friend sent me a text letting me know that she would drop off something on my porch around 4:00. This gave me the chance to listen for her and get a hug if I felt like interacting, or just let the drop off be.

P.S. If you don’t put your name on the Tupperware, it may not get returned to you. Use your cheap stuff.


8. Cozy, soft things.

My sister-in-law sent the world’s softest blanket from @bedbathandbeyond. Other soft and cozy item ideas include slippers, socks, pj/yoga bottoms, soft t-shirts and sweaters. When you don’t feel well, you are reaching for anything that helps you feel better. Even a little bit.


9. Help with paperwork.

As a medical social worker, I am more familiar with paperwork than the average Jane. I was in the hospital after my first surgery and had run out of sick days. I was feeling so sick and the idea of starting a short term disability claim was overwhelming. It felt impossible. Luckily, a close friend and hospice colleague reached out to our HR department and then printed out step by step directions for how to go on leave. She brought her laptop and we initiated a short term disability claim right then. My amazing friend did as much as she could without asking, stopping to ask when she didn’t know the answer.

There’s a lot of paperwork to keep up with when someone is going through illness. Every agency has their own paperwork that needs to be completed: state disability, medical leave for work, insurance claims, etc. You don’t need to be an expert to sit alongside someone as they attempt to decipher the complicated world of medical paperwork. 


10. Things to make me laugh.

Please, oh please, help me find ways to laugh! At your kids, your love life, at myself, at the state of our nation, anything. Here are a few of the things that have made me laugh recently. 

  • Funny memes. Obviously this is a no brainer, but it still shows that you are thinking of me when you pass them along to me. 
  • Books written by comedians. I just started Trevor Noah’s memoir and it is as funny and fascinating as the hype.
  • I had a couple of adult coloring book before but now I have this one from that makes me laugh as I color phrases like “I am sick of this shit.”
  • Light-hearted cards in the mail. Emily McDowell (pictured here) creates cards that are tender and humorous.

There's no magical answers or one-stop support, but hopefully these suggestions have given you ideas to ponder for the next time someone you care about is going through an illness.



  • Lisa – these are really helpful tips! I also love your style of writing and humor. Sending you hugs and wishes for a “more” speedy recovery. :)

    Stacy Logue

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