A writer with MS shares what she has learned from others as she gathers stories about supporting someone with a chronic illness.
By: Jan Goben
When you find out someone you care about has multiple sclerosis, there are ways you can help them, and things you may want to avoid doing.
Of course, everyone is different and you will need to use your discretion with each person. But when you approach someone with tears in your eyes and say, “I’m praying for you,” it can leave him or her surprised – shocked, even. When this happens to me, I wonder if this person has heard something that I don’t know: Am I dying? Well, no, I’m not.
Whether someone is dealing with MS or another disease, there are many ways to express your support. Go ahead and pray for your friends if you choose, but when you see them, usually a smile would be a good way to greet them. Here are some other ways you might help make your friend feel better:
Get in the Driver’s Seat
Offer to take your friend on a drive somewhere. One day, go to the farmers’ market to buy some oranges. Another day, your friend may say, “No, let’s go to the river.” Flexibility is precious. Go ahead, drive to the river and walk along the walkway, where he or she can hold the railing, or the fence – someone with MS can feel strong as they hold onto a railing that gives balance and allows them to take good strides.
Or maybe your friend wants to just sit in the car, windows open, and breathe in the fresh air. And listen to the radio. Or sing songs! Nurturing someone's soul can go a long way toward making them feel better. Bring a good book you've read recently.
Say Something Nice
Tell your friend how good they look, but remember that doesn’t mean they aren't feeling weak or sick, or don’t wish they had the strength they used to have. Go ahead and say, “You look great!” But add, “I know it's hard, but I'm proud of you for working so hard to keep your spirits up when it can be a depressing time.” You are telling your friend that they look great, but you're not dismissing the fact that they don't always feel so great.
“Sometimes you just have to swear!” This comes from a woman who was helping her friend through her MS diagnosis. Strong language has a way of releasing some of the energy that has been held in because of the build-up of pain in the body. While they may not need to swear, the idea here is to allow your friend to express emotions vigorously while they are with you.
Run a Bath
Soaking in warm water can help the muscles relax and lets the mind float away. Every person with MS has different experiences, and to some, warm water can aggravate symptoms and is unwelcome. But other people say they love the idea of a close friend helping them into a tub, so that they don't have to worry about feeling modest. For some, there is nothing as heavenly as floating in warm water and staring up at the blue sky (or at least the bathroom ceiling.)
Pick up the Phone
Don't be afraid to call. Many people have said that once their friends heard about their diagnosis, they suddenly disappeared. A simple phone call shouldn't be scary – nothing is expected other than, “Hello! How are you doing? I was just thinking of you and wanted to say hi.
Do a Chore or Two
Cook and clean for the person you care about. What does that person love to eat? Chocolate chip cookies? Cornbread? Make a treat for someone special and you will always be thought of fondly.
Help someone in their garden. Bring some tulip bulbs to plant along the fence. Maybe sunflower seeds – something he or she can watch as it grows.
Or help your friend paint that table they've been planning to paint for quite a while now – it’s not a huge project. When someone feels so sick and weak and low-energy, it can mean so much when you show up and spend some effort to help with something. That project probably doesn't feel like a huge project to you, but may be a huge project to someone else
Help Maintain Status Quo
This is something I’ve heard from different people with different diseases, to different degrees, and in different ways: “Most of all what helped was normalcy. I kept working through my treatments. My husband worked and my children kept on going to school. I kept routines. My husband and I walked daily. I consciously closed the door on fear every single day by reminding myself of the positives. I did things that made me happy – listening to favorite music, repeating (to myself) favorite quotes, taking photographs, spending time outdoors.” Helping your friend keep things as normal as possible is a great gift.
And finally, don’t be afraid to ask that someone you care about, “How can I help?” It’s the best way to find out what he or she really needs.
Jan Goben is writing a book about ways people can help out those with MS and other diseases. If you would like to tell about the best help you have received or other ways to help, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Last reviewed 7/2010)