How to Talk to a Friend Who’s Sick

Anyone who’s dealt with a serious illness knows how it goes….you’ll bump into a friend you haven’t seen in a while who has heard about your situation and they’ll ask “How are you?”  Even if you answer “Fine,” they’ll  then lower their voices an octave and say, “No, how are you really?” Or you tell them you have breast cancer and they blurt out, “I had an aunt who died from breast cancer.” Not very helpful or uplifting!

Most people know someone who has been sick or has a chronic disease. But most have no idea how to talk to them about it. Some people simply ignore the issue, even going so far as to drop the friendship because they don’t know how to deal with it. Others ask “What can I do for you?”  But this means that the ill person has to come up with a way for you to help them. Better is to offer a tangible way to help from offering to pick up their child from school to getting them milk the next time you go shopping.

It’s a natural human reaction to feel awkward in the face of illness, but what you don’t want to do is make the sick person feel worse or demoralized by an insensitive comment or even ignored by no comment at all. So what’s the best way to talk to someone who is dealing with an illness, surgery or even facing their mortality?

Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin helps us through these common situations with her new book out this month, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. The book is chock full of great advice to help you be a good buddy. Here are some of HER tips:

·         The main three things you ought to be able to say to someone who’s sick:

o   Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not.

o   Tell me if you want to be alone and when you want company.

o   Tell me what to bring and when to leave.

·         Show you care. That’s the key even if you don’t know what to say or do, be there for the person.

·         If you’re going to visit a sick person, first make sure they really want you to visit. Sometimes just dropping off their favorite food or writing a note telling them you are thinking of them may be enough. Don’t overstay during a visit because you think your friend wants company; actually ask and get them to tell you the truth. And don’t expect to be entertained.

·         Ask if they want to talk about their illness, and if they do, really listen without judging, interrupting or offering your solutions. “Advice,” she writes “can be dangerous, usolicited advice infuriating.”

·         Don’t tell horror stories and avoid self-referential comments or anecdotes. You probably don’t know “what it’s like” so don’t claim to. Even success stories can fall flat because every situation is different.

·         Avoid hackneyed platitudes, empty eloquence, and feel-good clichés.  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Chin up.” Those don’t help. More helpful  is to express empathy and availability: “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” “I’m here if you want to talk.” “I’m bringing dinner.”

Think before you speak, she advises. “What pops into your head should not necessarily plop out of your mouth.” And remember, everyone wants to matter and know they are thought of and loved especially if they are going through a hard time. You can never go wrong telling someone what they mean to you.  “Your job is simply to be their friend.”

Let us know if you’ve found words that have helped or something someone said to you or did for you when you were sick that was spot on.

 Resources:

·         How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin (PublicAffairs)

·         Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know, by Lori Hope (Celestial Arts)

·         There are lots of free web-based care-giving coordination sites that allow family, friends, colleagues and neighbors  assist those in need by setting up a private community and calendar to organize visits, meals, rides and other tasks so life can run smoothly when someone is sick. Here are a few:

o   www.lotsahelpinghands.com

o   www.caringbridge.org

o   https://www.carepages.com/

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