When A Friend Is Sick

The Dos and Don’ts of Helping A Sick Friend

May 16, 2013 at 11:51 am , by

When activist and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she was surprised at how not sick she felt—until word spread among her friends. Some loved ones avoided her completely. Others seemed tongue-tied or awkwardly danced around the issue in conversation. “Instead of, ‘Hey, how are you?’ everyone started asking ‘Oh, how are you?’ in that tone that says they’re painfully worried about you,” she says. She realized that many people have no idea how to act around someone who’s dealing with an illness. At the time of her diagnosis, Pogrebin was working on a novel but decided to shift gears and instead write her latest book, How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick.

Based on her own experience as well as interviews with 80 other patients, the book covers what to say in response to bad news, how to help and even what to bring to the hospital when you visit. I had the pleasure of meeting Pogrebin and collecting a few dos and don’ts.

Do ask her what she wants. “Everybody wants different things. Some people want to be treated as though they’re not even sick. Some people want you to sit and listen,” Pogrebin explains. You may feel like you shouldn’t ask, you should just act. But it can be liberating, not to mention extremely helpful, to give the sick person the opportunity to tell you exactly what she needs.

Do keep your good fortune to yourself. You should be honest if she asks how things are going in your life, but she doesn’t need to hear every detail about your promotion or the great vacation you’re planning. Keep it vague, and start conversations about current events or other interests you share, like movies, sports or politics, Pogrebin suggests.

Don’t ask, “How are you?” at all. If you’re someone dealing with chronic pain or chemotherapy, that’s a very awkward question to answer, says Pogrebin. “It’s the most basic opening line in human conversation, and it’s the most problematic for a sick person.” Instead, ask her, what’s new? This way, the conversation doesn’t begin with her having to acknowledge she’s not doing so well, and it’s open-ended. She can say “Not much,” or she can tell you about her treatment if she wants, or she can tell you her mother called.

Don’t tell her about that miracle treatment you heard about. It’s natural for you to feel like you should offer advice, but fight the urge. “Part of why disease makes us so uncomfortable is that we feel powerless,” says Pogrebin. “But so much advice is dizzying. She has a doctor for that. She needs you to be her friend.”