How to Cope When Your Loved One is Ill

Two hands holding each otherNo one can prepare us for the experience of providing care for a seriously ill family member or friend. When sickness strikes someone close to us, there may be a sense of chaos, urgency, and confusion. Details must be agreed upon, phone calls made, and appointments kept.  You’d like to sit and catch your breath, but chances are there is a list of tasks and you’re already running behind.

Illness has a way of sweeping the rug right out from under us.  Some illnesses are chronic, part of our loved one’s day-to-day existence – and ours as well. Others may first appear in the form of a suspicious lump, a questionable lab result, or an accident.  Whether chronic or acute, you’ve got a lot on your mind, heart, and plate. This article is written for you – a few ideas to help you so that you can better help your loved one.

Get centered – Stop, for just a moment, and look at your daily routine. Are you getting enough nutritious food? Enough sleep? Are you able to go for a walk, even around the grounds of the hospital? You can’t drive a car on an empty gas tank. Take a minute to make sure you include some element of self-care.  If this feels overwhelming, keep reading.

Get connected – Meet the doctors and caregivers involved in your loved one’s treatment. Explore resources for support in your community.  Hospitals usually have a Social Services office, oftentimes with social workers and others who can talk with you, offer ideas and resources, and help you navigate this experience.

Get answers – Got a question about your loved one’s treatment? Ask.  Noticing a new symptom or a side effect of medication? Tell someone. Clinicians are often bound by confidentiality, which may or may not apply depending on your circumstances. It doesn’t hurt to ask or to speak up. Knowledge is power. While we are on the topic of answers, is this the time to become aware of your loved one’s treatment wishes, legal matters, preferences about his or her personal paperwork? These can be some of the most difficult decisions we ever have to make, but they are important to consider in the case of serious illness.

Get support – It can be easy to isolate and lose touch with your friends and family, however, having concerned others who can be there for you is vital. Allow others in. If you can, remain involved in school, work, and activities you enjoy. Some days you may need to share how you are feeling with a friend. Other days you may not be able to give one more status report and just want someone to go to a movie with you. Friends and family can be a vital part of your wellness team.

Get control – “Control?? You’ve got to be kidding!”  It may feel right now like nothing is within your control. Serious illness or injury can sweep through your life like a force of nature. But hear me out. What can you control right now? Making decisions about mundane tasks like what to wear or what to have for dinner can add a tiny spot of normalcy. You can prioritize your day in any way available to you: “I will spend an hour at the hospital this morning, then when Mom goes down for x-rays, I will go down to the coffee shop and call a friend.” Getting control may also mean knowing your limitations and saying “No” when you need to.

Finally, get hope. When someone is diagnosed with serious illness, it may be hard to know what the future holds. There is a fine line between facing a significant medical diagnosis realistically, and holding onto hope for recovery. You may find yourself wavering between hoping for the best and yet fearing the worst. You are not alone in this state of confusion. Finding peace and balance can come as you work through the barrage of feelings, thoughts, and fears that are an inherent part of serious medical crises. Reach out to your support system, and allow others to help. If you have a spiritual path, this is a good time to spend some time connecting with your faith. Most of all, take the best care of yourself that you can during this stressful time.

Life holds no guarantees, but knowing this doesn’t make it any easier when we face a medical crisis. You are not alone. Allow others to help, find quiet moments for reflection alone as well as connection with your loved one who is ill, and if you begin to feel your level of distress is overwhelming, reach out and talk to someone you trust.

© Copyright 2011 by Tammy Fletcher, M.A.. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • DrRobinDilley

    August 8th, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    Thank you for the article. Perhaps joining workshops that focus on Self-Care will help.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    August 8th, 2011 at 5:10 PM

    Nice words on difficult subjects.

  • Luis

    August 8th, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    Any form of help from someone can feel like the best thing ever when you’re involved with the illness of a loved one.I’ve had to go through this unfortunately but my friends were a big help and were more than a handful at the time.Not only did they help me out by being with me but also keep me up mentally and never let me feel low.

    We all need support at such times.No doubt about it.

  • rick h

    August 9th, 2011 at 4:20 AM

    seen many many people ignore themselves and even important needs of their own while taking care of an ill family’re going through a lot of mental stress,why are you subjectin yourself to physical stress as well?! please be aware of your own essentials as well’s not easy having a family member ill but if you’re not taking care of yourself and maintaining good health then who is gonna take care of them?!

  • Lissa

    August 9th, 2011 at 4:46 AM

    I remember when my mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I wanted to be her super woman and do everything for her- take her to her appts, take her shopping, clean her house and mine, etc. But after a while this takes a toll on anyone, even when you love them so much and would do anything in the world for them. I had to start sharing some of the responsibilities with my brothers because I could not do it alone anymore. My whole life was suffering as a result. I was caring for my mother but little else. You have to find a balance that can work, and a lot of that is through trial and error.

  • Elliot Kingsley

    August 9th, 2011 at 10:50 PM

    You need to step back from them and the situation to realize that it’s them that’s suffering, not you. You won’t get through it if they are more calm and collected than you are.

    I’m not saying you should ignore what’s happening but you have to prioritize keeping food in your stomach and a roof over your head above all else. Losing your job won’t help.

  • viv

    August 9th, 2011 at 11:09 PM

    “Other days you may not be able to give one more status report and just want someone to go to a movie with you.” I’m experiencing this just now and that part’s what’s really overwhelming me, having to constantly update people on what’s happening.

    I’m not a person that enjoys being among company all the time and I need my own space. All the phone calls and doorbells ringing are stressing me out but I feel that’s so ungrateful of me to think like that when we’re lucky to have so many concerned.

    Yesterday I actually burst into tears when the doorbell rang for the umpteenth time that day. We’d had a sleepless, restless night and were both exhausted. We had only just got to sleep for about half an hour. I just couldn’t face another visitor. The poor UPS guy must have thought I was a crazy lady, stumbling to the door red-eyed.

    I don’t want to cause any hurt feelings but how can you say please give us some space? We’re only just getting used to the idea of his cancer ourselves and are both very weepy and emotional. He doesn’t want others to see him like that, just me. I’d give anything for a day to ourselves and this is only the start of it all.

  • tyra simon

    August 11th, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    @Elliot Kingsley-Sorry, I couldn’t disagree more. This is a time for closeness and getting even closer, not breaking bonds. The bills will still be there when they aren’t. You can worry about them later.

    You should be doing the complete opposite and strengthening that bond and making memories while you still have the opportunity to do so. What’s most important is expressing your love for them.

  • Jasmine Goss

    August 11th, 2011 at 6:18 PM

    It’s not selfish to take care of yourself physically and mentally but it’s hard to do because it’s feels like it is. You do need to be strong for them too if you’re a caregiver and you can’t do your best if you’re not feeling well yourself.

    So many chronically ill people have compromised immune systems too that you are putting them at risk if you let yourself get run down and catch a bug or cold. If you can’t bring yourself to do it just for yourself, do it for them.

  • U. Spencer

    August 11th, 2011 at 7:06 PM

    I’m going through this right now and it’s stressing some people in my family out to where my own stress is coming from how they act rather than what is going on.

    I feel like I’m the only one keeping a level head at times…and long may that last.

  • Tania Grey

    August 11th, 2011 at 9:51 PM

    Caregivers, you’re not the one that’s sick in these circumstances right now, but getting too stressed out will make you sick eventually. Then you have two people falling apart instead of one and the problems will get even worse from then on if you don’t stop to think about that.

    You’re doing yourself a disservice by not caring about your own health too.

  • beth-ann roland

    August 12th, 2011 at 11:03 PM

    You need to be there for them, but realize that you need to mind yourself as well or else, as you said, you’ll wind up sick as a parrot. Getting a break is so important too. Let friends help that offer to visit with them while you go out for a few hours alone or catch up on sleep. They want to.

  • Terese

    February 8th, 2017 at 7:20 PM

    Very hard times. My mom went through breast cancer than one year later had a bad fall and had two surgery’s and her memory is getting worse. Now my dad has cancer and needs surgery going back and fourth with the insurance company for a month trying to get his surgery. Its very frustrating. I am trying to keep myself together, I know I have to be strong but its so hard not sleeping or eating enough. I fear I will fall apart starting to feel sick from worrying so much.

  • Tammy Fletcher, PhD, LMFT

    August 8th, 2017 at 2:45 PM

    I’ve been alerted that an author named Punam Shah plagiarized this entire article on MindBodyGreen, under her own name. It has been reported to MindBodyGreen. Thanks everyone for the heads up.

  • Ella

    August 8th, 2017 at 4:41 PM

    In some cultures plagiarism is acceptable and not seen as stealing. I would be very upset that someone stole my words and wrote them as their own. I hope this practice is not becoming common.

  • Samita B.

    November 7th, 2018 at 6:26 AM

    Thank you for this! This has given me a lot of courage today. Would you know how to not let ill people mess up your momentum when you’re a creative person? It is so hard to get back to design work as I have to deal with the negative feelings and concerns. I am always being positive and helping. I live with my parents… not for long I am looking to move out. Many thanks, Kindest wishes Sam

  • luci

    January 27th, 2019 at 5:09 PM


    My brother is not doing well . I am the younges of 5 and he 5 years younger than me and i am very close to him. My heart is breaking he is in ICU but right now he has gotten better than yesterday. So we all got good news about him. BUT it still hurts because he has so many complications going with his organs it is a day to day progress so we pray every day he gets better and better. I am trying to be strong and keep busy but part of me is so scared for him and losing him due to all of his illnesses. How do i cope? How do i go to work and focus on my job daily? Not knowing what will happen to him next is it good or bad????? It is very hard. I lost my dad years ago but i was not close to him like i am close to my brother. So this is really hard!!! Any advice will do…….

    Thank you!

  • The Team

    January 28th, 2019 at 7:14 AM

    Dear Luci,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page:

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    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team


    April 17th, 2021 at 1:58 PM

    Thanks for this… I need to releive myself of stress. My grandmother is in the hospital right now, and I didnt know how to deal with it. When i heard she was sick, I was torn. She lives in Mexico. A few years ago, I was visiting her, and my grandma here in America passed away from cancer. Now the same thing is happening, but a different grandma. I didnt get to say goodbye.

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