I have discovered a wonderful little book that covers one of everyone’s most dreaded situations. It’s entitled How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick by Letty Cottin Pogrebin. She wrote the book because her friends had no idea how to talk to her after her cancer diagnosis in 2009.
Well-intentioned friends often made her feel worse than the disease! Pogrebin’s book points out one woman who was diagnosed with cancer eight years after her New York City firefighter husband died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. A friend commented, “Wow! You must have really bad karma! How come you always attract bad luck?” A tasteless, thoughtless comment from someone who had no idea how to comfort her friend.
Pogrebin, a writer, activist and co-founder of Ms. Magazine, reiterated how a friend, upon hearing of the author’s illness, exclaimed: “Oh, Letty, I was so sad to hear the news! It’s almost unbelievable because you’ve always been so healthful and youthful. How are you?” Pogrebin felt as if her friend was saying, “This is the end of who you are. You will never be young or youthful.” It was an erosion of who Pogrebin is as a human being and hurt her deeply.
But Pogrebin soon realized that even though these comments came across badly, it wasn’t malice that instigated them but rather lack of knowing what to say. So the author has made it her mission to change the norms of illness etiquette. She took a look at why people struggle so much with what to say and came to the conclusion that it is related to our own vulnerability. When a friend becomes ill, we are reminded of our own mortality. In our culture, illness is very sanitized, says Pogrebin. We don’t really talk about what illness looks and feels like and what happens when people don’t recover.
Pogrebin suggests that as soon as you learn a person has cancer or another illness, establish conversation that asks:
» Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not.
» Tell me if you want to be alone and when you want company.
» Tell me what to bring and when to leave.
More than likely, your presence will mean more than sending flowers. Find out what the person really needs, and mean it! Set the tone for really being truthful with each other. Find out if calling a couple of times a week is annoying. Some people, especially Pogrebin, found that emails worked better for her. Some people need a shoulder to cry on and like talking through their illness. Find out what works best for YOUR friend.
6 Keys to Helping a Sick Friend
» Ask your sick friend to honestly let you know if he/she wants no visitors or only certain hours of the day.
» Ask “What can I do to help?” instead of “Tell me if you need anything.”
» Don’t bring food in a dish you want returned. Leave the dish with them or make it your problem to pick it up on the next visit.
» Decide in advance on several topics that might stimulate discussion during your visit. Don’t just wing it. Bring a CD, a new app, a movie to watch together or a puzzle to work on with your sick friend.
» Consider helping by cooking a meal, cleaning the house, watering the plants, doing the dishes, walking the dog or changing the sheets.
» Want to give a gift? Try something personal, like a manicure or spa treatment for a female friend or an old-fashioned shave at a barbershop for a male friend.
The greatest gift of all? Pogrebin’s daughter, Abigail, summed it up for her. So much of friendship is just being in the room.
I recommend that you grab a copy of this great little book from Amazon.com!
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— John Daly is the founder and president of The Key Class, the go-to guide for job search success. Click here to learn more about The Key Class or get information on Thursday night classes in Santa Barbara. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.