Coping with a Loved One's Illness


As a family member or a significant person in a patient’s life, you may experience feelings of helplessness or loss of control when a loved one is in the ICU. You are as important to the healing process as all the medical care we are giving. You have been an important part of the patient’s life long before this hospitalization.

We realize what a strong influence positive reinforcement and encouragement from close friends and family have on the healing process. Because of this, your well-being is important to your loved one and us.

Below are strategies to help you cope while visiting someone who has a prolonged critical illness.

Purchase a notebook

Divide it into three separate areas. In the first section, write down the names of the physicians you meet who are providing care to your loved one, the social worker and any other care provider who is involved in your loved one’s care.

In the second section, write down your questions. Any time you think of something.

You may forget information you have been told or how you were to follow up on information you have received. You may also need to hear information repeated.

The third section is your journal. Many families find this a helpful coping method.

Take care of yourself

Proper food and sleep will enhance your ability to listen and understand the information you will be given.

Stressful situations combined with sleeplessness will eventually wear on you and make you prone to illness.

Try to eat healthy foods rather than convenient snack foods. Whenever possible get up and walk around.

Exercise is important to maintaining emotional health. Do not feel you have to be available every moment.

A trained medical team is looking after your loved one.

Personal coping kit

Put together a coping kit that may contain pictures, mementoes, books, magazines, healthy snacks, tooth brush, small pillow, or other things that may make you comfortable during long days.

Gather support

An important measure in taking care of yourself is to gather support from family and friends. If others come to visit, take the opportunity to refresh yourself.

The continual light and noise are draining. You should be taking breaks from the constant sensory input.

When someone asks “what can we do – we’re here to help” give yourself permission to ask for help.

Make a rotational schedule if there are many people available. Remember that the time in the ICU may be the beginning of a longer recovery. Your strength will also be needed during your love one’s recovery.

Remain positive

Keep your faith and hope strong; make sure everyone is encouraging and hopeful while with your loved one.

Always talk with your loved one, keeping him or her informed about what is going on. Read cards that have been sent to your loved one. Bring in pictures of the patient when they were healthy so staff can see the person behind the patient.

Identify a family spokesperson

We know access to information is one of a family’s most important needs. Having a family spokesperson eliminates frequent calls to the ICU, which can pull the nurse away from the patient’s bedside. The role of the spokesperson (not the person with the primary relationship to the patient) will be to contact all the friends and relatives who need updated information each day.

It might also be helpful to change your answering machine message to provide daily medical updates.

This could save you from making several phone calls per day and will give you some time to rest.

Support at home

As you spend many hours in the ICU supporting your loved one, matters may go unattended at home.

Make sure you delegate someone to pick up the newspapers, and mail. Ask someone you trust to make sure all your bills are being paid. Most importantly, make sure you have someone to look after your children if necessary.

Hospital resources

The unit social worker or ICU Manager can assist you with many issues. Do not hesitate to ask if you need any assistance with practical matters or require support.


The hospital also has a wide variety of language interpreters. If you require interpreter services, please speak to the nurse in charge. Learn more about interpreter services in Fraser Health.

I Need To...