WISDOM
Being A Friend To A Sick Friend
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08/04/2014

How can I be a friend to a friend who’s sick?

Letty Pogrebin in her book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, gives the following advice:

  1. The best response in any encounter with a sick friend is to say, “Tell me what I can do to make things easier for you—I really want to help.”
  2. Avoid referring to your own experiences.  A friend with a hacking cough doesn’t need to hear, “You think that’s bad?  I had double pneumonia.”  Don’t tell someone with brain cancer that you know how painful it must be because you get migraines.” The truest thing you can say to a sick or suffering friend is, “I can only try to imagine what you’re going through.”
  3. Never assume, verify.  Several friends of Michele reacted to her cancer diagnosis with, “Well, at least you caught it early, so you’ll be all right!” In fact, she did not catch it early, and never said or hinted otherwise.  So when someone said, “You caught it early,” she thought, “No, I didn’t therefore I’m going to die.”  Repeat after me:  “Assume nothing.”
  4. Get the facts straight before you open your mouth.  Did your friend have a heart or liver transplant?  Chemo or radiation?  Don’t just ask, “How are you?”  Ask questions specific to your friend’s health.  “How’s your rotator cuff these days?”  “Did the blood test show Lyme disease?”  “Are your new meds working?”
  5. Help your sick friend feel useful.  Zero in on one of their skills and lead to it.  Assuming they’re up to the task, ask a cyber smart patient to set up a web page for you; ask a bride or chess maven to give you pointers on the game.  In most cases, your request won’t be seen as an imposition but a vote of confidence in your friend’s talent and worth.
  6. Think twice before giving advice.  Don’t forward medical alerts, newspaper clippings of your Aunt Sadie’s cure for gout. Your idea of a health bulletin may mislead, upset, confuse or agitate your friend.  Sick people have doctors to tell them what to do.  Your job is simply to be their friend.
  7. Don’t infantilize the patient.  Never speak to a grown-up the way you’d talk to a child.  Objectionable sentences include, “How are we today, dearie?”  “That’s a good boy.”  “I bet you could swallow this teeny-tiny pill if you really tried.”  And most wince-worthy, “Are we ready to go wee-wee?  Protect your friend’s dignity at all costs.
  8. Don’t pressure them to practice positive thinking.  Positive thinking cannot cure Huntington’s disease, ALS or inoperable brain cancer.  Telling a terminal patient to keep up the fight isn’t just futile, it’s cruel.  Insisting that they see the glass as half full may deny them the truth of what they know and the chance to tie up life’s loose ends while there’s still time.  As one hospice patient put it, “All I want from my friends right now is the freedom to sulk and say goodbye.”

For more advice on how to be a friend to a friend who’s sick, read Letty Pogrebin’s book, How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.

About the author:  Throughout her recent bout with breast cancer, Letty Cottin Pogrebin became fascinated by her friends’ and family’s diverse reactions to her and her illness: how awkwardly some of them behaved; how some misspoke or misinterpreted her needs; and how wonderful it was when people read her right. She began talking to her fellow patients and dozens of other veterans of serious illness, seeking to discover what sick people wished their friends knew about how best to comfort, help and even simply talk to them. Now Pogrebin has distilled their collective stories and opinions into this wide-ranging compendium of pragmatic guidance and usable wisdom. Her advice is always infused with sensitivity, warmth and humor.  It is embedded in candid stories from her own and others’ journeys, and their sometimes imperfect interactions with well-meaning friends.  How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick is an invaluable guidebook for anyone hoping to raise to the challenges of this most important and demanding passage of friendship.

Photo credit: Airman Magazine

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