10 Ways to be an Amazing Friend to Chronically Ill People

Chronic Illness Friendships:

I’m not going to lie. They’re hard. When you’re sick, you get kind of get flaky. You can’t make plans far in advance because you can’t predict a good or bad day. If you do make plans, it is more than likely that you’ll have to back out. I can’t even count (I could, but it would make me sick) how much money I’ve wasted on concert tickets over the years. Now, if I can’t buy a ticket the day of/it sells out, I don’t go, for example.

Chronic Illness Friendships: 10 Ways to Be an Amazing Friend to Chronically Ill People

I was inspired by a Twitter conversation to write about how to be a good friend someone with chronic illness. You need to remember that chronic illness can come in so many forms – mental health, neurological health, autoimmune disorders, among many others. Some are obvious and talked about, but others might be more hidden. However, if you know your friend is sick (maybe they send this to you…) here are some tips for chronic illness friendships!

Also, remember that chronic illnesses don’t go away. They’re chronic. It’s not like a broken leg that heals. Your friend will be battling a big monster of illness for the rest of her life. Your friendship can change her life more than you can ever know. When you get sick, friends are a precious commodity. Good friends are more precious than gold.

I will admit that this list was really hard to write. Not because the tips are hard to give, but because it is an emotionally charged subject for me. Like I said above, a good friend is more precious than gold. I don’t have the kind of friends that I describe below, so maybe it’s more of a wishlist.

Also, these tips can be a good reminder on how to be good friend to anyone. Friendships take work, if you want to have good ones.

If You Don’t Remember Anything Else, Remember This:

  • Consistency
  • Quality Time
  • Inclusion
  • Remembrance

How to Create and Maintain Amazing Chronic Illness Friendships:

  • Ask your Chronically Ill Friend (CIF) what his or her limitations are – and remember them. It is likely that you only see her on “good” days, so remember that she probably has a lot more limitations than you know about. I tend to hide mine because it is embarrassing that I can’t do what a normal 26 year old can do. And if I try to do those things, I can end up in bed for days.
  • Respect your CIF’s limitations. If your friend emails back and say that she can’t make it to whatever event or commit to something that far in advance, respect that. She won’t have the energy to defend herself by emailing back and forth. You might think you’re helping her by getting them out of the house, but she knows her limitations. Trust me, she’ll take you up on offers that she can do.
  • Invite your CIF to do things that fit within her limitations. If she’s too depressed to get dressed and go out to lunch, maybe stop by her house with lunch. Remember that maybe it could be hard to get cleaned up, but just say you won’t mind.
  • Ask your CIF what she wants to do! She might have some ideas. Perhaps you can block out an afternoon to spend time together and if your friend feels well, go do something she has been wanting to do, but hasn’t felt well enough to do. If she doesn’t feel well, maybe watch your favorite 90’s movie at home. Don’t put pressure on the time. Just commit to spending some time with your friend. The time is way more important than the activity.
  • Don’t pressure someone who is ill to push through her limits. She can end up even more ill. But, don’t forget her. She stills has feelings and craves human interaction. You don’t have to give up on her, but you may want to invite her to a group brunch instead of a night of drinking. Actually, incorporating her into group events and helping them make new acquaintances, if that’s something she is able to do, can be helpful.
  • Simple and little things mean a lot. Stopping by for coffee, even if you brew it at your CIF’s house can mean the difference between another day alone and a day of happiness.
    You might just be dropping by on your way home from work, but your CIF probably looked forward to it for days. I know when someone does that for me, I will slowly and steadily declutter, try to wash my hair, put on matching sweatpants and a shirt, etc. I will seriously and gladly prepare for days if I know a friend is stopping by for 45 minutes to chat.
  • Maintain your friendships with technology. CIFs are used to connecting with people online. Their phone might even be their lifeline. Simply texting, “Hey, how are you?” can be a game changer for a CIF. Being remembered is something that every single person craves, but the isolation that comes from being chronically ill takes that away.
  • Try to remember other things! If your CIF had a medical test, an important appointment, a birthday, or their dog got sick, a simple email or text is meaningful. Again, everyone likes to be remembered. Snail mail is fun, too! Everyone loves it. Make that trip to the mailbox a nicer one!
  • Being sick is expensive. Remember that your friend may be on disability, working fewer hours, dependent on family for financial support, etc. Insurance only covers a small portion of a lot of complimentary therapies that help with pain. Additionally, the copay on certain medications can be enough to cut in on a food budget. So, if you can pick up your friend’s library books for her or just watch a Netflix movie with her, that can be super meaningful.
  • Adjust your expectations. Maybe your CIF was your best friend, but now things are different. Maybe you are both hurting, but if you follow some of the tips above, you can show your CIF why they were your best friend and how much they mean to you.

And always be consistent!

The difference between that person who drops in and out of your life at their convenience, which kind of hurts and a friend is consistency. Personally, nothing hurts me more (regardless of health) than having a friend who may or may not be a friend. I don’t live to be friends when it’s good for someone else’s timetable. #sorrynotsorry Even if it’s only once a month, once every other month, or less than you can spend time together, you can spare 5 minutes for a text or send an email once a week.

If you are busy, it literally takes 5 seconds to send a text that says, “Lots of work this week – can we catch up this weekend?” I just timed it. Do it.

Please note that comments with links that are not relevant to the discussion will not be approved. Personal signatures with blog URLs will be deleted. Please use the Disqus profile to add your blog’s URL, so that I can find you.

Categories: Chronic Illness | Tags: , |
  • Kate Mitchell

    I love this list! Totally sharing it.

  • LOVE this list! And you’re so right that illnesses can come in all shapes and forms. (And not everyone’s is visible!!) hugs, friend!!

  • This post is so wonderful Sarah. I know that the friends who have stuck by me through times when my illness has been really bad are the ones that I count on today. Not all friends know how to handle when you have an illness but the best ones are always willing to try. I think this list will be so helpful for those people!

    • I hope so. I hope people can share it with the friends they have before they lose their friends. I’m literally down to like two college friends. No local friends. I cannot make people who know me now (who didn’t know me before I was sick) understand. It’s like talking to a wall. I don’t know if they’re self absorbed or stupid. Either way, I don’t want them as friends, I guess.

  • I’m thankful that I’ve been able to make my friendships and my illness work together….as long as I schedule pretty much everything in the afternoon / evening, which is usually when people hang out together anyway! That said, we could probably collaborate on a “how to be a great spouse to someone with a chronic illness” post. I’m lucky (kind of) that I can manage my symptoms when needed around friends, but he definitely sees them more than anyone. Anyway – my point is, great post 🙂 I might be sharing it with my friends if I end up at home recovering from surgery for 6 weeks. This advice can work great for shorter term medical issues too!

    • Thanks! I think the hardest part, though, is that when you aren’t undergoing a “recovery,” or “treatment,” (like a specific treatment that people understand), they don’t even get that you’re sick. They just end up forgetting you over time because something like an outpatient procedure every 12 weeks or weekly therapies that aren’t well known, like chemo, just make you invisible and forgettable.
      You’re right, though, that these tips are good for the recovery time because that will be lonely and quality time and being remembered is so important–more important than being able to go camping or stay out all night.
      I think my biggest issue is that even if I feel ok, I don’t have any local friends to do these things with. I had to move to be closer to family, but I also ended up moving to a strange city with no friends and was too sick to make any.

      • Oh, I completely agree with you! No one else sees the physical therapy or the million other physician appointments, or understands the toll it all takes on your body.
        Sorry that hear that you don’t have local friends 🙁 I’m lucky in the sense that I moved back to my college town (city) and a lot of my friends stayed nearby. I know it’s hard to find new friends when you’re not working. But….I’m only an e-mail away whenever you want to chat 🙂

        • Oh yes, and all the driving to the appointments. When I was working, there was all the scheduling work around the appointments, which was stressful enough to just to give me a flare of other symptoms. It’s like I can’t win.

          I’ll definitely be sending you an email! 🙂

  • This was an interesting read, and really good information. I’m glad that you and I can at least text and bond over our feet! 😛

  • This is a really great list, Sarah. I wouldn’t have thought of many of these things so thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks! It’s really hard to be in this position because I’ve already gotten to the point where no one did any of those things, so I have two real friends left and neither are local. One is super busy with her last semester of pharmacy school and one is moving away because of a divorce. So, I hope people can share this and not lose friends before it’s too late.

  • This is such a good post. I would like to think if a friend of mine got sick that I wouldn’t stop being friends with them, but I would hate to intrude or offend so I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this because sometimes you just don’t know unless you have experienced it.

    • Yeah, I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing. In the case of a sick friend, I think the best thing is just to offer to be there. Depending on their personality and how they’re dealing with the diagnosis, you might have to be persistent, but I would err on the side of caution and keep trying to be a friend (even if you feel like the only one in the friendship–I think this would be an exception to the one sided friendship thing because they’re sick and not themselves). It’s likely that they will eventually realize that they do need friends and will be glad that you kept just texting to check in or whatever, so you can do some of those things with them.

  • Such a great post. People often forget how hard it can be for a sick person to do this whole life thing, and how much it can take out of them. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you! You’re right. Being full time sick, plus trying to live a full life is really hard. It’s easier if you have just a good friend or two to count on for venting, discussing, or just sharing a joke. My dogs just don’t appreciate my jokes like they should…

  • Such a beautiful read. Not going to lie, am in tears. I lost many friends through my darkest depression days and it is so sad that it takes an illness(in any shape or form) to sometimes see who your true friends are. This was a hard post to read because I still wonder if I could’be been a better friend to Corbin. Two years ago my friend was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at age 28. It was a long road and we all stayed optimistic and tried to be there for her as much as we could. She passed away in January and I will never take anyone’s illness for granted ever again.

    • Depression makes it so hard to keep friends, even when your friends are trying. I know that I have pushed people away. It makes me think about my small caveat in the one sided friendship post–that sometimes it is ok to be the only person in the friendship, if your friend is depressed or going through something hard. Then you can wait it out.
      Cancer is really hard because you don’t know if or when it will be terminal. I have only had one friend with cancer and she is in remission now. I think that if you were there for her, you did what you could. And people do tend to rally around people with cancer (not to be disparaging to cancer), but when the illness is never going to go away or you’ll fight it forever (like depression), it can be easy for friends to just abandon you.

      • So true. I do have fewer friends now, but they are truer friends. My husband battled depression as a teen as well and we always try and pick each other up when the other is down.

  • I want to say thank you for putting together this list even though it was difficult. While I may not have a close friend with illness at the moment, I may at any time in my life. I would want to strive to be the best friend I could possibly be and this list will help me. I am thankful for people like you and other spoonies on the internet that have given me an incredibly insightful look into the daily life and struggles of those with chronic illness.

    • Thank you so much! I think even some of the tips are good for just being a good friend. I regret not being able to be the best friend possible to one of my only two friends, who is going through a hard time. She was the one who did inspire a lot of the things above, so even though I can’t drop by for coffee, I try to send a funny text if I know it’s going to be a rough day because she’s making some big life decisions or just send a text that’s like “Thinking of you,” because I don’t want her to feel obligated to respond. And if I had more friends, I would hope that I could be the best friend possible.
      I also feel regret for not even being just the best friend possible to the friends I had when I had them. I definitely took the fact that I made friends easily for granted, when I could.

  • I don’t know why this made me cry, but it did. The way you word things, you are so good! I am so, beyond glad, I found your page. I know I probably say that a lot but I really mean it. You have opened my eyes in such a gentle way. And you’re funny and so freaking cute! I am so honored to get to read along your journey

    • Thank you! I hope that you’ll be able to recognize someone’s chronic illness one day and help them. Don’t let them get where I got.

  • You’re really lucky to have great friends. I had one good friend (she’s still a great friend, but she’s going through some of her own things now) who would invite me to things but say “of course, depending on how you feel,” or stop by and have coffee with me at my house. Now it’s like I need to teach my dogs to invite me to play with them or something… hahaha

  • Thanks for this post, Sarah. I need it. I have a friend who is in her early 30s going through chemo. The last time I talked to her was the day before getting her benign vs. malignant results. I’ve only received one lengthy text from her since explaining that she is not coping well and just doesn’t want to talk about any of it. I try to regularly text or email or send a fb message. But, not too often because I don’t want to harass or bother her. But, I want her to know I care, and I’m willing to be there for her even if it’s bringing over a movie to her house…and no discussion is needed about her illness. Until she is ready. And, I want her to know I’m there for her when she is ready. But…it’s not about me; it’s about her, and I want to respect her boundaries as well. So, I’m a little confused how to be a good friend to her during this time.

  • Thanks! Yeah, another blogger emailed me and said that she was glad I wrote it, so she could share it as a nudge, nudge, because it would be weird if she wrote it and shared it with her own friends. I was so glad I could help, but I did have to think, well, I don’t even have anyone this would be shared with if someone else wrote it.
    I do hope that one day that will change, but with 2-4 dr appts a week (now I am about to add PT), plus generally feeling horrible, and the inability to get to places to make friends makes it hard.
    I moved here when I was sick, so I pushed and pushed and made some acquaintances, but as soon as I reallllllllly got sick again, I never heard from them. No returned emails, no invitations, etc. Yet, another girl got cancer in our group of friend and they all rallied around her. I mean, cancer is horrible, but when it’s something they don’t grow up hearing about, people just don’t care. It’s not like there was anything intrinsically better about her than me. Unless there was? It makes me feel horrible about myself. And I wish people could understand.

  • Wow, I’m speechless. Beautiful.

  • Susan

    Hi Sarah,

    I am currently struggling while trying to be a friend to a chronically ill male acquaintance. I am struggling because this was not a friendship prior to the onset of the illness but merely somebody I know casually through my daughter’s sports activity. In my heart I would like to be able to support that person as a friend. My concern and struggle is how to initiate a friendship with somebody that is chronically ill without overstepping the boundaries of an acquaintance relationship.

    Any suggestions?

    Thanks for your time,


    • Well, if your daughter is friends with is daughter, you could ask him/his spouse if you could bring food, watch the kids, etc. When you ask what his conditions are, just try to listen and not give any “my friend’s brother’s girlfriend’s cousin had a bad neck and tried this,” but really a bad neck is just a symptom.
      Depending on his limitations, you could ask his family over dinner or for a game night. You could ask your spouse, if you have one to befriend him.
      And probably the best thing to do is to make sure that he is included and let him decide what he can and can’t do. Don’t let people make decisions for him–but let him know that if he can’t come or participate, that’s totally fine, too! Being welcoming and letting him into the community is the most important thing! Just wanting to help is SOOOOO important!

  • Li Sa

    thank you! As an aneurysm survivor with a TBI I totally understand this and am working on accepting it even 12 years later!

    • I am sorry that it has taken me so long to reply! I hope that you can share this on FB or in an email and help people who might not understand your loneliness or how you need them to be your friend and nudge them in the right direction. It’s hard to say “HEY. You are being a bad friend. I need a, b, c,” but it’s easier to share a post that you found online!

  • I am sorry that it took 6 months for me to reply. I’ve been sick. And depressed. I haven’t had any good friends. It’s been a real struggle. I hope that you can be a friend for someone because sometimes it is the difference between good health and bad because mental health affects pain levels and loneliness can ruin a the life of someone who used to have a rich social life.
    Personally, my husband and I feel like we’ve exhausted every avenue for making friends (church, volunteering together, etc.) and people have literally turned us away because they don’t understand what my life is like. We are planning on moving, if my husband can find a job. That way we can start over and I will not talk about my medical problems more than necessary.
    And I am very, very happy that this is helping you to be a better friend. Just last night, I was crying and talking to my husband because things had not worked out how I thought they should. I told him that I had hoped that God might have had some greater purpose for my illnesses than just sanctification. I wanted to help people. I wanted something truly good to come out of my experiences that are so horrific that I can’t even blog about some of them. And if you are a friend to someone who would otherwise be lonely, that is a big deal. 🙂