In the past month, four of my friends have had serious medical issues: two had knee replacement surgery, one was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer and one had heart bypass surgery. Fortunately, I was already reading Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick and found valuable suggestions for offering help to my friends.
As we age, more of our family and friends face illness and suffering. But no matter how much we love them, it can be difficult to know what to say and how to help. Pogrebin (who is also the co-founder of Ms. Magazine) has written the most heartfelt, personal and practical book on a subject that will benefit anyone who has ever wondered how to help friends who are in anguish or pain.
Pogrebin is a gifted storyteller, superlative wordsmith, and insightful writer. In this book, which she calls a hybrid, she alternates her own story of breast cancer with ten self-help chapters on how to be a better friend to a friend who’s sick. She has woven in uplifting stories of friendship and kindness that touched me deeply. Many of the stories she heard from patients she met while she was undergoing treatment.
Pogrebin decided to write the book after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and couldn’t find any books that dealt with friendship and illness. She had many unanswered questions that piqued her interest:
- What’s the best way to be a friend to a friend who’s sick?
- What happens when illness becomes the third party in a relationship?
- Does everyone agonize as she did about whom to tell and how much to divulge?
- Do life-threatening illnesses deepen people’s desire for intimacy or make them retreat?
- How do you deal with friends who are insensitive or say stupid things?
- Do friends who offer help make the sick person feel burdened?
- How do you ask an overbearing friend to back off without sounding mean or ungrateful?
With all these questions on her mind, she decided not to “bewail her daily incarceration” as she waited for her treatment. Instead, she interviewed her fellow “wait-ers” for answers as they all “killed time at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital hoping that time wouldn’t kill them.”
Ten commandments for conversing with a sick friend
Pogrebin offers these 10 commandments for conversing with a sick friend:
- Rejoice at their good news—don’t minimize their bad news. A good phrase to use is “tell me what I can do to make things easier for you—I really want to help.
- Treat your friends as you always did before they got sick—but never forget their changed circumstances.
- Avoid self-referential comments or anecdotes. It’s not your turn to complain; just listen. The truest thing you can say is “I can only try to imagine what you’re going through.”
- Don’t assume, verify. When it comes to diagnosis or treatment, assume nothing.
- Get all the facts straight before you open your mouth.
- Help your sick friend feel useful.
- Don’t infantilize your sick friend.
- Think twice before giving advice.
- Allow patients who are terminally ill to set the conversational agenda.
- Don’t pressure them to “keep up the fight” or practice “positive thinking.”
Pogrebin shares many of her own experiences—both good and bad. She had friends who simply disappeared or said insensitive things, and others who made her feel loved and cared for. Some of the lines that made her feel good were: “I’m so sorry this happened to you,” “Tell me how I can help,” “I’m here if you want to talk,” “That sounds awful; I can’t even imagine the pain,” and “I’m bringing dinner.”
Her motto is: Ask and Act. Bring a CD as a gift for the patient and also ask: “What would you like me to bring the next time I come?”
Rules for good behavior while visiting the sick, suffering, injured or disabled
She lists 20 rules for good behavior while visiting the sick, suffering, injured or disabled that include some obvious, as well as some you may not think of:
- Call ahead to make sure the patient wants visitors.
- Don’t visit if you are sick.
- Don’t talk too much.
- Be odor sensitive by not wearing perfume or reeking from cigarettes.
- Don’t go into your own health history or share your best friend’s prior experience.
- Don’t stay more than 20 minutes.
Tips and ideas for what to bring a patient or the caregiver of a patient
She also offers some tips and ideas for what to bring a patient or the caregiver of a patient.
- Bring ice cream or other goodies, if there are no dietary restrictions.
- Bring books and personalized CDs.
- Bring gift certificates for meals, or massages.
- Offer rides, grocery shopping, house cleaning, babysitting or picking up children.
- Continue to check in to see how they’re doing.
The book includes poignant chapters on “sickness and shame” that discusses the many reasons why some people prefer not to share the details of their illness and how to mourn with a bereaved friend.
The final chapter touched me the most with her equation that “kindness equals empathy plus action.” She shares inspiring stories of extraordinary kindness and friendship that sometimes brought tears to my eyes.
Pogrebin writes that cancer made her face her mortality sooner than she would have liked, but it also showed her that joy can flourish within the shadow of death. Fortunately for us, she also compiled a wealth of valuable information that can help us all be kinder and more sensitive to our friends who are sick.