Emotional Support after Major Medical Events

After a major medical event, going to the faucet might feel like hiking to this sign.

After a major medical event, going to the faucet might feel like hiking to this sign.

It's inevitable. Weird medical shit (I'm sure that's the scientific term.) is going to happen to you or someone you love. Resilience and recovery after a medical event is obviously a physical event, but it's also an incredible emotional feat for the patient. Whether it's a freak accident, a birth gone awry, a chronic illness, or a difficult diagnosis, knowing how to approach illness can be the difference between having your presence take energy away from the healing patient or giving them the emotional resources to heal, to comply with their (often painful) doctors' care regimens, and to generally keep on keeping on. With my love and hopes for your loved ones' recoveries, here are some general guidelines for emotionally supporting someone (referred to as the patient) after a major medical event.

Always ask before you visit and immediately when you arrive if the patient has the energy to visit.
Sometimes, even a visit that is pre-planned at the optimal time for the patient's schedule doesn't end up happening to coincide with the patient's energy levels. Especially if the medical event was catastrophic (long hospital stay, large bodily trauma, post major surgical intervention, etc.) know that the patient's energy levels can fluctuate on a dime, and don't take it personally if it doesn't appear that they do have the energy for a visitor. It usually has nothing to do with you and usually has everything to do with all their energy resources already being diverted to physical recovery. It also takes an incredible amount of emotional resources to tell someone who went out of their way to visit to go back home, so being verbally upfront about your willingness to do whatever it is to support them (even if it's going away), takes the pressure off the patient and allows them options that are necessary if they're running low on energy reserves.

Ask for and honor the patient's choices and preferences in whatever care you give. 
After a major medical event, it's highly likely that the person won't be able to cook and care for themselves at full capacity, and reliance upon loved ones' cookery and acts of kindness tends to be depressing to those who have grown up in cultures that emphasize self-reliance. The patient often depends upon others' charity for the duration of their major recovery, which often doesn't give them options and choices for things self-reliant people take for granted. A good example is the choice of what to eat. It is often a boon to the patient to ask them what they would want to eat and when. I am reminded often of a situation where a recovering patient received four consecutive red chile cheese tamale casserole trays from four different family members. The patient was grateful to have food prepared, but the ensuing several days of unending red chile tamales placed the severely immobile patient into a depressing conundrum of having the umpteenth tamale or go without food. Invite the patient to make choices on their care, if they are able and willing, letting them know that you see and value their human preferences, likes and dislikes. Major medical events are oftentimes situations where the patient doesn't get to choose between favorable options: it's often the adverse outcome or the often painful treatment. Let your emphasis on honoring the patient's choices and preferences be a refreshing snippet of the normalcy and range of choices they would have if they were not ill and dependent. 

Open your listening ears and leave your expectations at the door. 
Medical events are hugely taxing upon the body and mind. Expectations and apprehensions of what the patient is able to do and feel are often colliding against realities of what they are able to do and feel. Issues of fairness and why a medical event or diagnosis occurred may be explored, and oftentimes, the patient's meaning-making exploration can vary from a spiritually esoteric journey to a methodical statistical analysis. The meaning-making exploration is hugely and individually value-laden, and it can also be a collision of the patient's values and those of their family and friends upon areas of religion, justice, goodness versus badness, definitions of health, definitions of quality life, etc. All of this meaning making occurs in the context of real-world pragmatic issues of accomplishing daily living tasks and the inevitable comparison of abilities from the time before and after the medical event. That's a lot of energy, and it involves a number of areas which are often central to how the patient sees themselves and the world. Be gentle with the patient, and try your best to keep your own judgments about how you expect them to feel or be able to do tasks to yourself. Listen and acknowledge their feelings and thoughts, and if their emotions appear to be unstable (appear very depressed, tend to isolate, neglect or sabotage their own care, etc.), invite them to explore more professional help as another means to speed along their recovery.