Ways to help those who are dying or sick

A few months before Ruth Terracini died she wrote a letter (link) to others so they could better understand death and dying. In her letter she included ways that we can help those who are dying, including the carers (may that be a husband or wife, siblings, extended family or friends). 
"It takes energy to ask for help, and it somehow makes the situation seem even more hard to bear … "not only am I sick, and a burden too, now I have to think of jobs for people to do!" I truly appreciated it when people took the initiative. When people offered specific help and followed through I could relax, be grateful, and feel loved. 
It is hard to ask for help. Imagine for a moment, that a friend or acquaintance has said to you "Oh, that's terrible, let me know if there's anything I can do"…and you respond "Oh well, um, our front lawn is around knee height, and my husband is exhausted from taking me to the emergency department, worrying about me, cooking for me, caring for me … so if you could pop over and mow it or organise someone to, that would be great". I could never say that! It feels like an admission of not coping, of having to rely on other people. It feels awkward and wrong. It feels like I am being lazy and asking them to do something that I should be able to do myself (how hard is it to pick up the phone and call a gardener!). Maybe I'm too proud, but I'd rather settle for a garden that has the unkempt look."
It is so important for us to reach out and help those in need. It doesn't need to only be those with chronic or terminal illness, it can include helping an exhausted mum who needs a break, a family who have the flu, someone elderly who is struggling to mow the lawn or someone in a dark place at present that just can't manage day-to-day. Helping makes all the differences and that is what is most important. 
"I know now that the phrase "Let me know if there's anything I can do" is well meant, but impossible (for me at least) to respond to. It is much easier to be grateful for something that somebody did without having to be asked. If you are thinking about how to help someone who is facing cancer or something challenging, my advice would be to:"
  • Understand that it is hard, and energy sapping, for the person to ask for specific help. Try not to put the person who is unwell in the position of thinking of jobs for you to do, and asking for help.
  • Don't do anything out of a sense of obligation. Do it out of love, or not at all. Be truly happy to help.
  • Understand that cancer can be an experience that is long and drawn out – and that help in various forms is just as much needed down the track as it is in the shock of the first few weeks after diagnosis.
  • Realise that although a cancer patient may actually look well, they are, in reality, dealing with all sorts of things you may not be aware of. These can include regular blood tests and scans (and the nerve racking wait for results), pain, fatigue, appointments with the oncologist, bad news/good news (and what to tell people), medications (and their side effects), hospital visits, coming to terms with death, difficult decisions.
  • Accept that doing something for someone does not have to be a grand gesture. You don't have to be a close friend or family member to reach out to someone that you know has been handed a desperate diagnosis or a very challenging situation.
  • Remember the caregiver. They are bearing many burdens – working, as well as caring, housework and dealing with the incredible stress and worry of having a very ill partner. Much of what is written below could, and should, equally well be done for them.

Practical things:
  • Mow our lawn
  • Make me dinner
  • Clean something around my house
  • Invite me along to something fun or nice that you are doing
  • Take me to a good movie
  • Meet me for coffee
  • Send me a card of encouragement
  • Shop for some organic fruit for me
  • Share something out of your vegie garden with me
  • Plant something in my vegie garden
  • Send me a text when you are doing your grocery shopping and ask me if I need anything
  • Find out when I have to go to the hospital for treatment, a blood test or a port flush, and offer to come with me or visit me there
  • Visit my elderly parent(s) when I am too tired or sick to go to see them
  • Take my dog for a walk to tire her out and keep her happy

Kindnesses that take little effort but that can be powerfully uplifting:
  • Tell me that you have said a prayer, or sent positive vibes into the universe for me
  • Write me a note to tell me why I matter
  • Send me an email or text every now and then just to say you are thinking of me…and don't expect an immediate response
  • Share a memory that you have of me that is special to you
  • Talk to me like I am a normal person, not a diagnosis or a problem to solve. Let me enjoy some time with you when cancer is not the main topic of conversation
  • Let me know that you care – I don't need (or want) to talk about my disease or treatment all the time, or for it to be the first thing that you ask about, but I'd like you to acknowledge the reality of what I am going through, and not pretend it isn't happening
  • Do something challenging and tell me that you were thinking of me when you were doing it (the Relay for Life, a long distance event, a hike up a mountain)
  • Do something for my husband, who has been supporting me in every way since our ordeal began
  • Give me a hug and tell me that you love me

Whilst not mentioned in the letter from Ruth Terracini, as Christians we should understand the importances of praying for those who are dying and especially those who are caring for the sick. And there many things we can do that take little effort but are profoundly important and comforting: reading the bible, play hymns, create prayer groups etc.. 


  1. When someone is diagnosed to be "terminally ill" people often shy away - it is too confronting.
    And when people are chronically ill, people stay away because it is SO long.
    But these are practical pieces of advice to make a difference - great post Jo!

    1. I watched a short doco on the terminally ill (you might have watched in on iView) and one of the things almost everyone said was that people shy away or didn't know what to do or avoided the situation. I thought this lady has some wonderful ideas that would be very useful to share.

  2. Wonderful, practical. Thank you.

  3. This is an excellent, most helpful post. I have a friend whose husband just died after prolonged illness. Thank you.

    1. Thankyou Laura, a hard topic but one we will all face at some point.

  4. This post came at a perfect time for me as I have a friend struggling with health issues after she just had a baby. Sometimes it's hard to know the best ways to help, but this post had great suggestions!

    1. I am so glad you find this list useful, it can be very hard. I hope your friend recovers quickly.


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