So, you have someone close to you who has shared their health journey with you and you know they have a lot going on in their body. You’re used to sympathizing with them and asking them how they’re doing, but then things take a turn. They aren’t able to come out this weekend and seem much less happy than they were a few days ago. They confide in you that they can’t leave the house and maybe can’t even get off of the couch. A flare-up has struck… and suddenly, you don’t know how to act around them.
A quick refresher — a flare-up is an episode of increased symptoms that might be debilitating, involve acute pain and/or a limit to the person’s mobility and range of motion. The range of symptoms are vast and unique to the individual’s body and condition. Keep in mind that “flare-up” is just one common way to describe the experience of worsening pain. The person in your life might have a different word or way of describing this happening to them. Use your deep listening skills to recognize what they are going through.
Having a loved one who struggles with chronic pain can make you feel powerless. You can’t fix the cause of their suffering, you don’t know how to fix their symptoms and you walk on eggshells, not knowing how to talk to them or if your presence is even wanted. Sometimes, people who are sick or in pain need space and privacy, but for those with chronic conditions, being constantly isolated because our sofa days don’t fit into the norms of casual socializing is lonely and even scary. The FOMO (“fear of missing out”, for anyone who doesn’t spend too much time on the internet) gets intense.
Sometimes, when a friend asks if I need anything, my pain-brain doesn’t come up with a constructive response, so I say my usual “no, nothing, I’m all set.” Then once I’m alone again, I think of the garbage that needs taking out, the pile of laundry that needs folding, or how long it’s been since my dog has had a real walk.
You might feel useless because you don’t know what your loved one needs and they don’t know how to tell you. But please know — on some of these bad days, your friendship is the most useful asset you can offer them. Speaking from my own experience, here are some ideas to get beyond asking something open-ended like, “what can I do to help?”
1. Offer to cook a meal or two.
Of course, cooking is one of the most difficult yet necessary jobs for someone in pain. Meal prepping is a challenge for almost everyone, period, so pain-free people I know tend to be able to easily empathize with the struggle to make my own food when I’m hurting. Standing and lifting is hard on sore bodies. Ordering takeout might be an option once or twice, but the expense racks up quickly, and not sticking with our usual diets might make symptoms worse. Ask your friend what kind of food they feel like eating and whip up a double batch that can be easily served after you’re gone. Bringing healthy snacks is also a good option to make sure your friend gets regular nourishment.
2. Do the dishes.
One of my friends once cleaned all of the dishes in the sink while I slept through a sudden flare-up. Waking up to a tidy kitchen and one less chore to worry about is so comforting. When messes pile up, it’s not just difficult to face the physical work, but can also be emotionally overwhelming and make the home a negative space — which is counter-productive to healing.
3. Run a bath.
If the bathtub is accessible to your friend, offer to set up a bath to help them relax and soothe their body. Do all the prep-work for them — fill the tub (wipe it down first if you think it needs it), light a candle, pour in some Epsom salts (great for sore muscles), lay out a towel and fresh pajamas to change into at the end. Wouldn’t you love it if someone did this for you?
4. Look for chores that need to be done.
It might be weeks after the end of a flare-up before we are physically able to clean without pain. A lot of people don’t understand that the days of acute pain during a flare-up aren’t the only days that chronic pain affects our ability to do household jobs. Fatigue, sore muscles and tender joints persist before and after flare-ups. The bending, lifting and energy required to scrub, empty and rearrange things in the house can cause a second flare-up if they’re even possible to do at all. Offer to vacuum their room, wipe down the sinks and surfaces or change their bedsheets. You’ll lift a weight off their shoulders.
5. Drive them to their doctor’s appointments or therapy.
Transportation can be tricky, tiring or expensive when you’re in pain. Some people struggle to drive during a flare-up. Relying on public transport means being out of the house and away from self-care essentials for more of the day. The bus stop might be a long, painful walk from the office itself. Making sure we make our appointments is a sure-fire way to support our healing processes. Pharmacy runs are great, too!
6. Netflix and heal.
Offer to come over for a movie or to binge-watch a show together. Chances are, your friend is already doing this on their own and your company would brighten their day. TV can be a cozy distraction from the havoc going on in their body. Tell your friend it’s OK if they fall asleep (pain is fatiguing and medications can cause drowsiness) and settle in on the sofa.
7. Bring over a care package.
A personal gift is a wonderful mood booster that can show how much you care when you don’t know how to express it in words. Be sure to stick around for a chat, though — your company means most of all. Some memorable items I’ve received from friends during flare-ups include flowers, gossip magazines, comfy lounge clothes and essential oils that soothe my symptoms.
8. Feed, play with or walk their pets.
When I don’t feel well, my dog’s care is still my number one priority, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to keep up with her needs. Having a short break from pet-care can give a much-needed period of interrupted, pure rest for your friend. Plus, their pet might be bored with all that quiet time and getting your attention will make their day!
9. Do a final sweep before you leave.
Is there anything quick you can do so your friend doesn’t need to get up one more time when you’re gone? Fill their water glass, change out their ice pack, adjust the lighting, bring them their medication. These tiny actions are deeply appreciated.
10. Reply to their texts.
If you’re supporting your friend from a distance, being available for a long text conversation is a wonderful option. This can cheer up your loved one, make it easier for both of you to say things that aren’t easy to express in person and quell their loneliness. I have a friend who I often end up talking to on Facebook Messenger when I have painsomnia (pain-induced insomnia). She became that person for me simply because she is usually up late and is a good conversationalist with whom I feel I can share my experience.
Try out the things on this list to find what you are comfortable with and what helps your loved one the most. Always verbally check in with your friend to make sure your offer of help fits within their personal boundaries. You can even tell them you read this article! We love to hear that someone cares enough to research ways to help.
When it comes down to it, your presence and compassion in your friend’s life is what matters. When we are in pain, we fear losing our friendships and missing out on the action in our lives. Responsibilities threaten to bury us and isolation creeps up around us. There are so many simple actions you can take today to make sure that doesn’t happen to the people in pain in your life.