5 Ways To Support a Friend or Loved One Going Through a Big Surgery

So someone you know and love has a major surgery on their calendar. You want to be supportive with your whole heart, but... maybe you feel like you don't know what to do. Honestly, it can be hard to figure out exactly what they need. While, of course, the cliché that "there's no wrong way to be supportive" is very much true, it also doesn't give you any insight on what to actually do when a loved one is going under the knife. So we talked to some experts to get some real-life advice on how to support someone before surgery and after.

Overall, know this: Any efforts will likely be appreciated if you mean well and want to make your friend or loved one feel cared for. However, each person's needs are different, so the more you fine-tune the role you play for them, the more helpful you're likely to be.

Experts In This Article

How to support someone going through surgery

1. Be realistic about what you can offer

When supporting someone through a vulnerable time, we might be eager to make promises right off the bat. But one of the worst things we can do is offer a ride, money, childcare, or help, and then not follow through on that when it's actually needed.

The first step to being supportive is looking inward at your own schedule, emotional bandwidth, and other commitments. Natali N. Edmonds, PsyD, ABPP, a board-certified geropsychologist (a psychologist specializing in care for seniors with dementia and their caregivers), stresses that it's super important to ensure you're meeting your own needs to take care of someone else on a full battery. It's a classic "put your airplane mask on before your child's" situation.

Remember: One of the main needs of someone going through a hard time is having a stable, low-stress environments. If you want to cook them dinner and bring it over during their recovery, that's great! Or, if you are ready to take part in caregiving in a bigger way, like driving them to appointments, being present day-of, or even hosting them at your home, go for it. Just make sure anything you say you'll do is something that's actually going to be feasible for you to deliver on.

"You can decide ahead of time what you can and are willing to do to support them. You can also be clear on the signs and symptoms of your mounting stress that indicate it may be time for you to slow down or take a break," says Dr. Edmonds. To be clear, there's a difference between not following through on something you said you could do, and simply recalibrating your support most sustainably.

2. Don't forget about what you can offer before surgery

"One of the biggest misconceptions I see people have is that support is only post-surgery," says Brian Clark, CEO of United Medical Education and an emergency medicine nurse of 20 years. "There is a significant psychological impact pre-surgery that often goes ignored. Post-surgery has a lot of physical limitations and consequences, but the psychological aspect of knowing that you made it through makes those burdens easier to bear."

Pre-surgery support could look like helping your friend go through insurance information, or taking on administrative tasks like making appointments. Sometimes the million little tasks get hard when it brings you closer to surgery—especially one you aren't looking forward to. Some surgeries are exciting, like a gender-affirming procedure or something that will fix an injury. Other surgeries may not be guaranteed to solve a particular medical issue, or even may confirm if the problem is worse than they thought. Keeping in mind the bigger picture of what they're going through can help you find that particular puzzle piece in which your care could fit.

3. Consider the skills you have

Maybe you've taken care of kids for years, so you are the perfect person to hold your friend's hair while they throw up from post-op nausea. Or maybe you love to cook, or know just how to make your friend laugh. It can't be overstated how okay it is to be realistic about your unique skills. Every friend is different, and being the one to text funny memes, FaceTime regularly as a distraction, or drop off food is just as valuable as the person who can be in recovery's trenches.

In today's world, there's also a need to pay bills. If you're a writer or a talented graphic designer, consider offering to author your friend's GoFundMe or design the cover photo. Fundraisers can be emotionally easier for someone else to manage. (Think about going through surgery, and then consider putting yourself out there by asking for financial support. An exhausting combination, to say the least.)

4. Find out what they need, but also offer suggestions

Most of us aren't great at asking for help. Get a sense of what might be useful, but don't put the onus on your loved one to request it.

"Don't just say, 'What can I do to help?' or 'Let me know if you need anything!'" says Dr. Edmonds. "If you do, they will likely not have an answer or say nothing. Instead, you can say, 'I was thinking of mowing your yard this weekend; would that be okay?'"

5. Know that even small gestures matter

Sometimes it feels like support is either just sending a card and a GoFundMe donation, or helping them shower while they're hazy on pain medication, with no in-between.

However, there isn't a hierarchy of value to these roles. The handwritten notes, the Grubhub gift cards for meals, and the help during post-op showers are all going to be appreciated. Any effort is part of an ecosystem of support. The cards that wish someone well are gestures of care that the primary caregivers may not have time to get to. Donating to a GoFundMe can feel impersonal, but might be what someone needs to pay for their surgery. Remember that your presence is valuable, even if that's just a text or time spent watching a movie. These efforts work together to knit a supportive net that your friend or family member can rest in while they recover.

At the end of the day, it's awesome that you're researching ways to be more supportive of your friend. That alone is a sign your loved one is lucky to have you along for the ride.

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