How to Help a Sick Friend

5 dos and don'ts to comfort a friend who is ill. What you consider helpful may actually be hurtful.

By Andrea Atkins

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

  • “Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not."
  • "Tell me when you want to be alone and when you want company."
  • "Tell me what to bring and when to leave.”

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:

  • “Is it terminal?”
  • “How could this happen to you?”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Chin up!”
  • “At least you’re married.” 
  • “How are you?” (That can cause a person to have to really confront all of the things they are feeling—or cause them to lie and just say, “I’m fine.”)
  • “Oh my God. I know someone who had what you have and died!”
  • “You look great!” (Says Pogrebin, this can be interpreted many different ways: “You look like death warmed over and I’m being nice”; “For someone in your condition, you look pretty good”; “I expected worse”; “Losing 15 pounds from not being able to eat is actually a good thing.”)

4. Have Some Good Things to Say

Someone who is sick always likes hearing the following:

  • “I’m so happy to see you,” which, Pogrebin says, will make anyone feel good.
  • “I’m sorry you are going through this.” Saying so acknowledges that the patient may be having a hard time and that you understand that.
  • “What are you feeling?” This question allows a sick friend to speak honestly about the emotional part of dealing with illness. It’s specific, Pogrebin says, and not likely to provoke bravado from the patient.
  • Say nothing at all. “The other option is silence. If the person is really lying there and sick, just be there,” says Pogrebin. “That action says, ‘I want to sit here and be with you. Don’t feel like you have to say a word…you don’t always have to say something to prove that you’re knowledgable.” 

“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:

  • Something You Know She Loves. If your friend loves the muffins from the bakery in your downtown, why not bring her a couple? (check to be sure she can eat them.)
  • Ice Cream. Most people adore it, so why not?
  • Frequent Flyer Miles. If someone has family living far away, you can offer frequent flier miles that will help them visit.
  • Free Time. Offer to run errands, to babysit, to pick up a visiting friend or relative—anything you can think of to make the patient’s life easier.
  • A Gas Station Gift Certificate. If your friend is in a hospital that is distant or which someone must drive out of their way to get to, give a gift certificate for gasoline. At today’s prices, it’s sure to be appreciated. 
  • A Wrap or Warm Blanket. Sometimes hospitals can be chilly. A cozy extra blanket can help (and be appreciated at home.) Delicious smelling room sprays can cover the medicinal smell of a hospital, but some people are sensitive to such sprays, so be sure to clear it with your friend before you bring it. 


My dear cousin and friend is dying of colon cancer. She lives far away. I send at least 2 cards a week that are uplifting and/or funny. I include pictures, sometimes packets of lotion, other momentos. I have shipped cookies from a French bakery here, Funny DVDs, and any other little things that I come across. She tells me that she really looks forward to getting things in the mail.

wonderwomanjanet on 2013-06-04 10:56:12

I always worry about what to say to a sick friend. thanks for the suggestions. on 2013-06-04 08:55:54

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