Information for relatives and friends

This page is meant for the relatives and friends of patients and should help to make the approach to the patients easier. A serious illness represents a big challenge even to a long-standing relationship, because it changes the relations between the people concerned. Feelings and expectations arise on both sides. Many people experience their new role as partner, parent or friend of a sick person as difficult. They notice that the usual interaction with the person who has become ill has changed, and unusual and to some extent unpleasant feelings and questions arise.

The new situation can perhaps be compared to the beginning of a journey together. Plans are made for a common route to be taken and something new to be discovered. This presupposes a readiness for mutual acceptance and a desire to clarify common, or perhaps opposing, interests. In the case of a summer trip this can easily be achieved since everything centres on leisure and enjoyment. In the case of a trekking tour, on the other hand, one soon begins to notice in one's thoughts a little of the difficulty of coping with fears and possible dangers. In this respect, people can be very different.

What follows might illuminate the special nature of the encounter between a "healthy" person and a "sick" one. Every one of us becomes ill from time to time, e.g. with influenza or whatever. For the time being this can be very unpleasant but one expects to make a complete recovery. To be seriously ill, on the other hand, means that the quality of life is impaired over a long period of time and perhaps that the life expectancy of the person concerned may even be called into question. Matters of central importance such as long-term plans for living, work or the capacity to maintain relationships have all to be reconsidered.

Questioning what has happened is a part of life. For a sick person it is difficult, particularly at the beginning, to accept to become so insecure and vulnerable. The protection of the own intimate nature and integrity as an important part of one's personality appears to come under an extraordinary strain. In this context the undesired visit or questions of a relative can be experienced as rather stressful or unpleasant.

As relative perhaps you think you can understand all this, although you cannot know what is going on inside the sick person. You are full of good intentions and only want the best for the sick one. However, everyday's experience shows that this can lead to great misunderstandings and disappointments. It may help to know more about your own role as a relative. As such, you may have very different interests, which in part are very selfish. In the first instance, you are curious to have more information, if possible at first hand. You would like to understand the situation of the sick person and express at all costs your sympathy or your own feelings of insecurity. Or even learn the opinion of the doctors or like to give medical advice.

It is possible that you recognise that you have such or similar motives. Perhaps at this juncture you ask yourself questions. The following sketches of dialogues try to reflect possible patterns of encounter between a patient and its relatives. Let us call the patient Sandra, and imagine that we are going to visit Sandra soon.

These few dialogue sketches are intended to show you how cautiously one can approach a sick person. Mutual understanding is achieved by openly identifying feelings (yours and the sick person's). You can show that you have registered what has been said by, for example, repetition of the sick person's words.