Making it Better, Not Worse

15843103You need former Ms. editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin‘s new book How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. Everyone needs this book.

If you have a sick friend, if you are a sick friend, if your friend has a family member who is sick, here’s where to turn to learn how to help make things better. And if, by some kind dispensation of fate, you don’t fit any of the above-mentioned categories, trust me—you will. In any case, this wise, pragmatic, eloquent, funny, touching, compassionate, sensitive and  full-of-great-tips  book will instruct  you in what you should do, and what you should never, ever do, when someone  you care about is dealing with illness.

Among the never-dos are the delivery of such  time-honored,  cringe-worthy lines as: “Everything happens for a reason.” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Nor is, “Omigod!  You poor thing!  This is sooo bad!” ever helpful. And when a friend tells you he’s feeling great because “they got it all,” you do not want to say, “Really? How do they know?”

On the other hand,  says Pogrebin, there are words we can use  that get it exactly right because what we’re conveying is either empathy, availability or both. Like, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” “How  can  I help?” “Tell me if you want to be alone and when you want company.” “I’m here if you want to talk.” “I’m bringing dinner.” “You must be desperate for some quiet time. I’ll [babysit] your kids on Saturday.”

Pogrebin offers a master class in turning lemons into lemonade, conducting many of the 80 or so interviews for her  book at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where she was receiving  radiation treatment following a lumpectomy for breast cancer and where she all-too-often found herself waiting with great impatience well beyond her appointment time. “Rather than bewail my daily incarceration in the waiting room,” she decides, “I could write a book on the subject of friendship and illness” and “use my waiting time to interview my fellow wait-ers, who, like me, are killing time at MSK in the hope that time won’t kill them.”

Using her own experiences as well as those of the women and men she interviewed, and always respectfully mindful of the differences between people—one size doesn’t fit all—Pogrebin guides us in many useful directions, like  how to give good  visits to sick friends: Rub their back. Change their  sheets. Watch a movie together. Shovel their driveway. Play checkers or chess. Walk their dog. And, very important, don’t talk too much. Don’t stay around too long. Tolerate silence.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

She also invites us to frankly face up to our feeble rationalizations about not visiting: “She told me I didn’t have  to come.” “If it was me, I’d want to be left alone.” “I can’t bear to see him like that; I want to remember him the way he was.” Get over it!

And she is full of suggestions and warnings about which gifts are the right kind to bring to a sick friends and which are—what in the world were we possibly thinking of!—breathtakingly wrong. (Hint: Even though the title is indeed an exact description of your friend, you do not want to give her a book called Bipolar and Pregnant.)

Pogrebin is honest and brave  about her own encounter with cancer three years ago and equally fearless as she examines what kind of help is helpful during  some of life’s worst-case scenarios. What can you do for a friend whose child is dying or has died? What can you do for  a friend—or for the burned-out spouse of a friend—in the throes of dementia? What can you do for friends in the  final  stages of their lives—when they are dying? We want to help those we love but too often we  misinterpret their needs, offer unwanted advice, say something awesomely dumb, or fail to be there.

Pogrebin’s book will teach us all how to be there, and to be there as our best selves, either in active engagement or quiet sharing.  She tells of a four-year-old boy who, seeing his widowed neighbor weeping, climbed up on his lap and nestled against his chest. When his mother later asked him what he had said to the grieving man, the boy replied, “Nothing. I just helped him cry.”

With its rules and tips and lists  (Ten Rules for Friends of a Bereaved Parent) and its instructive Case Histories to Learn From and Live By and its moving and sometimes (yes!) hilarious anecdotes, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick is a precious source of profound humanity and solid good sense.

Let me say it again:  You need this book.

Judith Viorst is the author of many books for adults and children and a long-time hospice volunteer.

Photo of Pogrebin by Flickr user Jewish Women’s Archives under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Judith Viorst is the author of many books for adults and children and a long-time hospice volunteer.