Emotional-strength training: How to visit the sick


She has breast cancer. Or he has a heart attack. Next thing you know, they’re in treatment or a hospital, seriously ill, perhaps even dying, very much in need of a friend.

That friend is you. Are you up to the task? Do you know what to say? Probably not. When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, we have all sorts of books to tell us how to build bigger biceps and tighter abs. But good advice on emotional-strength training is much harder to find. And just as important.

“Finding out a friend or family member has a life-threatening illness can knock you off your foundations,” says Susan Apollon, a psychotherapist who works with people who are seriously ill themselves or grieving for others. “It brings all sorts of intense issues - death, dying, loss, love, spirituality - to the surface. Many people have no idea what to do with the powerful emotions that well up.”

So here are some of Apollon’s best ideas for dealing with a sick friend, based on her new book, “Touched by the Extraordinary.”

  • Set your intention.

“If your intention is to help your friend laugh and feel good and enjoy her life while you are with her, then clearly state that intention before you leave for the hospital,” advises Apollon. “Hold that intention throughout the visit. If your intention is to rush to the hospital, make perfunctory small talk for 10 minutes and flee before things get too heavy, well, you’ll achieve that, too. But it won’t feel good for either of you.”

  • Stop worrying about what you’re going to say. People obsess over that, Apollon says, when in truth, the words you say aren’t nearly as important as coming from a place of love.

“Focus on your love for that person,” she said. “Let that love fill your heart and overflow the room.” The person you’re visiting will feel it, and the words you use won’t matter.

  • Keep it real. Don’t say something you don’t believe. The person you’re visiting knows what’s phony, and it creates a sense of disconnect.

If you’re absolutely at a loss for words, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know what to say or do, but I am here and I care about you.”

  • Create a distraction. Ask how other family members are doing, books read, movies seen. Come in with a funny story of your own.

“The more you get your friend to focus on something other than his own body, the more endorphins you help your loved one release,” said Apollon. “And the better he feels.”

  • Use your breath.

“When I am sitting quietly with a patient, I use my breath to help him calm down,” she said. “I take long slow breaths that slow my body down. … I allow my breath to be audible enough that the patient can hear it. The result is that my breath connects with his. We get in sync. By establishing this connection, I am better able to send love and healing energy to the patient. This is not some sort of special ability. It happens naturally. Anyone can do it.”

  • Make sure you are in a place of peace before you visit. This is probably the most important tip of all, says Apollon.

“If you don’t feel peaceful, calm and centered, take 15 minutes to quiet yourself before you visit. Hold on to that sense of peace throughout your visit,” said Apollon.
Susan Apollon’s advice may seem too new agey for some, but from my own experience, her basic message is sound and well worth passing along. Someday, I am sorry to say, you will need it.

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” George Eliot said that.

Marilynn Preston is a fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues . She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to