Supporting a Loved One Who Has a Serious Medical Condition


If there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is the importance of personal relationships. There will likely come a time when you will be faced with a loved one’s serious medical diagnosis. Many people find that it is difficult to know what to say, much less do, in this situation. Supporting a loved one with health issues in the age of social distancing can be even more challenging.

As a radiation oncologist with the Mass General Cancer Center at Emerson Hospital – Bethke, Robin Schoenthaler, MD, spends her days with people who have cancer and other serious medical conditions. In her work with patients, including treating patients during the pandemic, she has learned a lot about how to support loved ones and friends through serious illness. Here are some of her best tips.

Tips to Support a Loved One with a Serious Illness


Organizing Meals and Rides

  • When planning meal drop-offs or rides to appointments, use a spreadsheet or online resource such as CaringBridge or Lotsa Helping Hands.
  • Do not use meal drop-offs as a “social engagement”. Make it easy for your loved one by leaving meals in disposable containers in a cooler outside their front door. That way they will not feel obligated to return items.
  • Arrange for only three to four meals per week so the person — and their freezer — is not overwhelmed.
  • Try to make low-salt meals, as well as a variety of foods that include child-friendly options, like mac-n-cheese.
  • Make sure you are aware of any food allergies.

Mindful Specificity in Logistics

  • Be specific in your offer to help. Instead of saying, “Call me if you need some help,” say, “I am going to the grocery store and will pick you up some essentials.”
  • Ask if you can pick up a prescription at the pharmacy.
  • Mention specific dates and times of day you are available to support the patient, even virtually.

Use Care with Dr. Google

  • Especially in the beginning stages, online research can lead to unedited information overload and even misinformation. Hold off until more is known about the diagnosis.
  • It is particularly important not to research symptoms in the beginning stages, but to encourage the person to reach out to their physicians.
  • Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, the internet can be a helpful resource for information about the condition.

Understand It Is Not About You

  • Try not to impose your own experience with diagnosis and disease onto your loved one. That is not their experience.
  • Listen with an open, nonjudgmental mind and without inserting your own story.
  • Be emotionally present with your friend or loved one. Let them know you are not going to disappear.

Follow the Person’s Lead

Ultimately, the approach in helping a loved one during this difficult time should be to follow their lead. That may mean scheduling regular Zoom visits or phone calls to support them emotionally or offering to take charge of lining up meals or picking up prescriptions.

Mostly what people need is simply to know they can depend on their friends and loved ones and that they are there for them.

Health Works Here Podcast: Ways to Support a Loved One Who Has a Serious Medical Condition

It's a tough moment that many of us have experienced already or almost certainly will at some point: Someone you love receives a serious diagnosis and begins the journey to deal with all of the ramifications. In this Health Works Here podcast, Dr. Schoenthaler discusses how best to navigate this difficult journey, sharing tips for both patients and those around them.

Subscribe to the Health Works Here Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, and wherever podcasts can be heard.

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