How solid are your friendships? Get sick, and you may find out. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of the book How To Be a Friend to a Friend Who Is Sick, says that in 2009, not long after her 70th birthday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Some of her friends were fantastic. Some behaved strangely, some behaved badly, and some just hadn’t a clue what to do.
“Illness is friendship’s proving ground,” says Pogrebin. “I think that when we’re in an ordinary friendship, we’re relaxed, intuitive, and comfortable. As soon as illness becomes the third party in the room, we have to pay heightened attention. We realize that words have impact that they didn’t have yesterday. The question becomes ‘can you rise to the occasion?’ A lot of people can’t. They can’t handle it, disappear, or are cloying, sanctimonious, or suffocating. You find out which friends can really roll with the punches. Illness demands more of us than ordinary every day friendship.”
As she went through treatment for cancer, Pogrebin looked for a book about illness and friendship. Finding none, Pogrebin, who is the founding editor of Ms. Magazine and herself a journalist, wrote one. She interviewed hundreds of people who were patients to find out what works and what doesn’t when someone is sick. Here are some of the things she learned:
1. Honesty Is the Best Policy: “It’s your job to establish honesty with your friend as early as you can, ideally, when the person first tells you of the illness,” Pogrebin says.
Three sentences will set the ground rules
By letting your friend direct you, you will not be just another person bringing a casserole that doesn’t get eaten. You will become the visiting friend who recognizes when a patient is tired, and whose sensitivity is tuned in to what’s needed, Porebin says.
2. Avoid Platitudes and Stories: “It’s all in your attitude.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” “You’re tough, I know you will pull through.” We tend to say these things to people who are sick but, says Pogrebin, they are salves for the people who utter them. They actually put a burden on the sick person—as if to say, “you can do this, and if you don’t, it’ll be your fault.”
And don’t share stories about people you have known who have done well with whatever illness is on the table. Each person has his or her own illness, and your stories don’t necessarily lend assistance.
3. Resist Saying Things You’ll Both Wish You Hadn’t: Every patient Pogrebin interviewed could remember at least one insensitive comment he or she had received. Never say:
4. Have Some Good Things to Say
Someone who is sick always likes hearing the following:
“Illness touches close to us when it hits a friend,” Pogrebin adds. “You don’t want to believe that someone you are this close to could be sick…we need to say to ourselves, ‘What are the things we can do here?’ We can be with the person and help them normalize—which for a sick person is a major goal. Be yourself and take your cue from the person. If they want to talk about the illness, then you can listen. But you don’t have the authority to say, ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine.’”
5. Give Good Gifts: Pogrebin says she once carefully ordered a food basket as a gift for a sick friend. When that friend called to thank her for it, Pogrebin noticed she never said anything about how the food tasted. She decided to ask her about it—the friend keeps glaat kosher (a very strict form of kosher eating) and couldn’t eat the things that were in the basket. The incident was a reminder to her that when giving gifts to friends who are ill, you really need to know what’s needed. Here are some of her suggestions:
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