When a friend gets sick, you might drive yourself crazy trying to think up just the right things to do and say. Whether it’s a sudden surgery, a flareup of a chronic illness, or a terminal diagnosis, you want to be a good friend. You want to offer up comfort and empathy, without being too depressing or throwing your friend a pity party. Plus, you want to cheer them up, without seeming insensitive or flippant about the whole thing.

There’s a lot to manage all at once, and it’s easy to drift over the line into unhealthy perfectionism. Some people get so hung up on what to do that they ultimately panic and do nothing at all. There’s a popular saying that you find out who your true friends are when a crisis, like illness, comes up. If you want to be that “true friend,” consider these do’s and don’ts for supporting a friend if and when they get sick.

DO: Send Comforting Gifts

A gift is a great way to start off on the right foot, especially if you’re far away or can’t visit often. It lets them know you’re thinking of them, and, with the power of the internet, it doesn’t take much time or work. However, you do need to make sure you show some kind of effort, or your friend might not feel very cared for. That’s why it’s a good idea to take extra care in choosing a gift that’s especially thoughtful.

If your friend is in the hospital, their room is probably already jam-packed with flowers and stuffed animals. While these can be nice, there are many more creative options in the way of get well soon gifts. Consider sending something that helps pass the time, like an interesting puzzle or an adult coloring book. Food, snacks, and tea are also great options — nothing’s more comforting than a warm bowl of soup and some tasty bread.

DON’T: Request or Offer Explanations

If your friend has a complicated diagnosis, you might be curious about the specifics of their illness. What’s their prognosis? How’s their pain level? Are they going to need surgery? Will they live? While it’s only natural to want to know if your friend is going to be OK, keep in mind that all their other friends and relatives are asking too. Save your questions for someone else who’s already in the know, so your friend can save energy for healing and happier interactions.

The absolute worst thing you can do is assume you know what made your friend sick or how to fix it. For example, if they’ve had a heart attack, never, ever ask them about their diet or activity levels. Do not offer them suggestions on what they “did wrong” or what they could or should do differently in the future to get healthy. Whatever you believe, this isn’t the time to lecture your friend about the wonders of gut health or a gluten-free vegan diet.

DO: Offer Specific, Practical Assistance

When a person is sick, lots of people approach them with a vague “let me know if there’s anything I can do.” The trouble with this phrase is that it puts the onus on the sick person to come up with a task and then ask you. It means they have to have both the bandwidth to organize and delegate tasks, and the confidence to know they’re not imposing. For a person struggling with serious illness, this level of self-esteem and executive functioning may feel way out of reach.

Instead of a blanket offer to help with whatever comes up, instead, try proposing something specific, measurable, and time-bound. For instance, let them know you’d be happy to bring them lunch on Tuesdays, or drive them to the doctor for their monthly appointments. That said, be careful never to over-promise — you could damage the relationship, or even hurt your friend (eg. by making them miss an appointment). Make commitments you’re sure you can keep, and if you must cancel, find a replacement.

DON’T: Make Them Cover Up Their Feelings

When someone is dealing with a long-term or serious illness, they’re bound to cycle through a lot of feelings. They might try to keep it light and positive one day, and bawl their eyes out the next. They might also be uncharacteristically cranky or even angry. Your job, as a friend, is to hold space for these feelings, rather than try to change their mood. Unless they ask, don’t try alter their mood — just let them move through their experience.

For example, if your friend is feeling down, don’t pressure them to try and cheer themselves up all the time. If they’re cracking jokes, on the other hand, don’t insist on keeping the mood somber just because they’re ill. Finally, don’t guilt trip or lecture your friend if they’re rude or impatient with you, other caretakers, or staff. And never tell them to calm down: they’re likely in tremendous pain or discomfort and don’t have the capacity to worry about their manners.

Managing Your Own Emotions

It can be difficult to be truly present with a friend when you’re worried about how they’re doing and whether you’re getting it right. Over time, your friend’s illness can also take a toll on your own well-being and mental health. You might need additional support, like another friend to confide in, or a grief group or licensed therapist. Do your best to process your worries and fears with an outside person, not the friend who’s sick.

To ease the burden on yourself and avoid getting too stressed when you’re around your friend, make sure you set strong boundaries. Take plenty of time for yourself, and set limits to make sure you get the rest and self-care time you need. It’s like putting your own oxygen mask first on the airplane, before assisting another passenger. You need to be safe, healthy, and alive to provide the best possible support for your friend.