Tips For Supporting A Loved One With An Invisible Illness

An invisible illness is exactly what it claims to be: invisible to the naked eye. When someone breaks an arm or has an oxygen tank, you can tell they're sick; but when someone has an invisible illness with no apparent symptoms, it's much less obvious. There isn't a real, medical definition for the term, but essentially, invisible illnesses are "diseases that affect a person's ability to conduct their lives as they'd like to but that you can't 'see'," per Health. Not only is it difficult for a loved one to deal with, but you may also be at a loss as to how you can support a loved one with mental health issues.


When someone is sick or injured — whether the symptoms are visible or not — it's important they have a strong support system behind them. Having loved ones around can make the person feel much less alone, and can lift their spirits during their lower moments. But, the question is, how do you support a loved one with an invisible illness? There are several ways to do so, and they're much simpler than you might think.

Accept that you're helpless

When a loved one is sick, your first reaction may be to try to fix them or help them find some sort of cure. Perhaps, you've heard of a doctor that specializes in their illness, or maybe you read about holistic medicine somewhere online; however, the sooner you accept that you're helpless, the better. It's great that you want to offer a solution, but chances are the person has already seen every doctor and tried every treatment; and sometimes, there just isn't a cure. Your loved one may have already accepted their invisible illness, and want nothing more than your support.


Instead of offering help, let them know you're always there to listen. Remember, you don't always have to respond, the American Cancer Society states. If they want your advice, great, and if they don't, just let them vent. If they do open the door to conversation, try to keep things light. The best thing to do is read the room and adjust the topic appropriately.

Offer to run errands or do house chores

Oftentimes, when someone is ill, they may fall behind on errands or cleaning their home. If this is the case, now is your chance to show your support by helping out. Take an inventory of what needs to be done, and offer to check some of those chores off of the list. Not only does this give you something to do, but it takes the burden off the other person, says PsychCentral. They have a lot going on in their mind already; the last thing they want to do is clean out the garage or stand in line at the bank.


Of course, you should still ask the person if they want your assistance before making any moves. To you, it might seem like you're being helpful, but to them, it can come off as if you're implying they're lazy or incapable of doing basic tasks themselves. To prevent this, be careful how you approach the situation — the last thing you want to do is sound condescending.

Take the time to learn more about their illness

The more you understand your loved one's invisible illness and the challenges that come with it, the more you can empathize with their situation. Not only will this make it easier for you to navigate the conversations you have, but your loved one will also feel supported, knowing you're interested to learn about what they're going through. Do some research online, or ask them if they're willing to answer more in-depth questions about their illness (what their symptoms are like, possible causes and treatments, etc.).


One of the most important things to keep in mind when discussing their condition is you're talking to a human, not their illness, Healthline says. Treat your loved one as you would if they had no health concerns at all. This is not the time to put your kid gloves on or take pity on them; just be yourself, and keep your ears and mind open.

Try to be patient

Patience is a virtue, especially when supporting a loved one with an invisible illness. This means not getting frustrated when you reach out and don't hear back for a while (or at all). Instead of expecting an immediate response and getting upset when you don't receive one, give them a time frame of when they can reach you, Healthline suggests. This way, you'll be able to give them your full attention when they want to chat. The last thing you want is to make a loved one feel like an inconvenience or a burden.


It's also good to practice patience when they have to cancel plans. When someone is sick, you have to accept that plans can change at any moment and that it isn't the person's fault. They may be having complications with their illness, or maybe they have a last-minute appointment they need to get to. Whatever the reason, be patient, and let them know those plans will still be there when they're ready.

Remind them of how special they are

When someone is dealing with an invisible illness — or any health condition — it can put a damper on their self-esteem and self-worth. If you start noticing your loved one feeling down on themselves, here's your chance to help boost their confidence by reminding them what a positive impact they have on your life. Let them know how loved and important they are to not only you, but to everyone around them, and they should understand no illness can change that.


These moments don't need to be a huge ordeal — just take some time to sit down and tell your loved one how much they mean to you, and that you always have their back. It might seem like a small gesture to you, but words of encouragement really do make all the difference. We all need a confidence booster every now and then, no matter how big or small.

Ask them what you shouldn't do

When we want to help someone who's ill, our first response is to ask what we can do; however, we should also be conscious of the things they don't want us to do. It can get overwhelming when so many people are trying to support you all at once, even if they have the purest of intentions. Sometimes, helping someone means not helping them at all. It's critical for that person to establish boundaries when discussing their condition, so make sure you have a good grasp on what your loved one's boundaries are. 


To get a clearer picture of their needs, ask your loved one what wouldn't be helpful in the moment, so you won't make the mistake of doing so. Most importantly, don't take it to heart if they don't want your help at that point in time. Assure them your feelings aren't hurt by their honesty, and you'll be around when and if they do need your help.

Be there, but be willing to give them space

All in all, the best thing you can do for someone with an invisible illness is to be there for them. This means showing up and giving them your full attention when they need to vent, cry, or talk about their day. Now is the time to be selfless and give them the floor to discuss their feelings or fears. Before you start giving advice or asking follow-up questions, get a read on what they want in return. They may want feedback or advice, or no response at all — just someone to listen to them.


Ask your loved one what they want ahead of time so you don't overstep any boundaries. If they need a set of listening ears, be that for them. If they want your advice, offer some suggestions without being too forward. To help them find the best solution to an issue they're having, avoid starting sentences with phrases like, "You should" or "You need to," when giving your opinion (which you should be doing with all your friends anyway, to be honest).