Helping a Friend in Need: Life-Threatening Illness

  • “When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.” ~ Isaiah 43:2 (NLT)

The reality of possibly facing the end of life brings a host of emotions: anger, frustration, hopelessness, isolation, confusion, and despair. These all have their roots in fear. Navigating through this minefield of emotions can be very difficult, not only for the patient, but for those who are close to the patient.

Helping a Friend in Need: Life-Threatening Illness


The impact that finding out news of a life-threatening illness is far reaching and it invades every aspect of daily existence – physical, emotional, relational and spiritual.


Changes in appearance (hair loss, bloating, skin rashes, etc.) and side effects due to medications (nausea, diarrhea, migraines, etc) may occur, as well as pain and discomfort. Your friend may want to talk about them, and we encourage you to do so and not act as though they don’t exist.

Acknowledge the Reality of the Changes. An individual may be embarrassed by the changes and may try to distance themselves for the people that they truly desire to come alongside them to offer support. Keep the discussion as light as possible, and when appropriate try to use some humor.

Give Honest Encouragement. Focus on any small improvement. It’s alright to talk about the problem, but try to balance it with talk about the rest of life. If you notice their eyes seem brighter today, or voice seems stronger, or there’s a bit more color in their cheeks, maybe how good it is to see them sitting up and enjoying the sunshine – share that encouragement with them.

Follow the Paitient’s Lead. Be sensitive about asking for information regarding the diagnosis of treatment. Your friend has a doctor and nursing staff – what they need you to be is a friend. What you learned on WebMD last night is fine and all, but in most cases, keep it to yourself. There is a team that is trying their absolute best to save your friend’s life. What he/she needs from you is to focus on them as a person and friend.


The emotional aspects of a life-threatening illness can be as devastating as the physical impact. Anger and frustration often give way to a sense of helplessness, despair, and fear. With impending invasive tests, surgeries and endless medications taking over a major part of his/her existence, emotions can run haywire.

Be tenderly aware of the patient’s emotional vulnerability. This is a time for empathy. Allow the patient to express feelings, fears, and the sence of isolation or confusion they may be feeling. There are normal responses in such a challenging and often grave situation. Listen with gentlness and compassion – a reply is not required for every question, nor a response to every plea.


When life-threatening illnesses occur, there is often a strain on relationships as well. For the patient, there is a desire to not be a burden on others, nor for people to see them in the shape they are in. Often, people will distance themselves from those they love most during these times. Not always, but it happens. On the reverse side, those people that should be coming alongside the patient during their time of need maybe do not want to have to deal with emotions of talking about death and dying, or to see their friend or loved one in that condition, and so they distance themselves as well.

Be Bold and Step Up. You friend or loved one needs you to be present. It will be hard at times, but this is part of life. If the roles were reversed, how would you want those closest to you to respond in your time of need?


The spiritual dimension of facing a life-threatening illness is critical. What a person believes about him/herself, his/her relationship to God, and his/her perception of God’s relationship to him is of primary concern. Assure the individual that you will pray for him/her (and their caregivers), but only if you are willing to make that commitment. Pray for wisdom for the doctors and nurses who are caring for the individual. Pray for family members who are living daily with this difficult situation. If they have a pastor of church leader that they have a close connection with that they might like to have come and have prayer with them, ask if that would be okay to let them know.


"I can’t imagine what you must be going through”

"I really admire your courage.”

"Can I [clean the kitchen, pick up something at the store, go with you to the doctor] for you?” Be specific.

Do something for the caregivers (parents, spouse, etc.). The patient often feels guilty about the demands that have been placed on the caregivers and appreciates any kindness shown to them.


  • “I know exactly how you feel” (no one know fully how another feels). 
  • “I hate to tell you, but my brother died of this same thing.” 
  • “If you need something, you know how to reach me.” 
  • “How much time do you have?” 
  • “Did you ignore the warning signs?”


Psalm 73:25-26 (NLT) “Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth. My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.”

John 16:22 (Phillips) “Now you are going through pain, but I shall see you again and your heart will thrill with joy – the joy that no one can take away from you.”

Romans 8:38-39 (NLT) “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”