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Author offers tips on what to say and do when a friend becomes seriously ill

Mon., Nov. 18, 2013

Friends didn’t know what to say to Letty Cottin Pogrebin after her 2009 cancer diagnosis.

Conversations with well-intentioned friends turned awkward. Some said nothing. Others talked too much.

Cottin Pogrebin, author of the new book, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” interviewed dozens of people, including several in her waiting room, and quickly realized how common it is for people to struggle with what to say, and what to do, when a friend faces a serious illness.

Unfortunately, sometimes what is said is so off the mark it can make the sick friend feel even worse.

Her true-story examples of what not to say include the following:

• A woman who underwent a mastectomy was told, “At least you’re already married.”

• When a woman who was diagnosed with cancer eight years after her husband, a New York City firefighter, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center, a friend exclaimed, “Wow! You must have really bad karma. How come you always attract bad luck?”

• A woman shrieks to a friend diagnosed with leukemia, “Wow. A girl in my office just died of that! Wait! It wasn’t leukemia! It was lymphoma. I mixed up my L’s.”

And then there are all the useless cliches: Everything happens for a reason. Everyone’s dying. No one knows how long they’ll live. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You don’t deserve this.

Cottin Pogrebin’s book offers a healthy dose of sensible advice on how to relate and help a sick friend. The book is full of tips such as “Ten Tips for Good Giving” and “Twenty Rules for Good Behavior While Visiting the Sick, Suffering, Injured or Disabled” and is intertwined with personal stories.

Pogrebin, a lifelong activist, writer and co-founder of Ms. Magazine, has a new mission: She wants to change the norms of illness etiquette.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed the author:

Q. Did you hear a lot of “what not to say” comments yourself, or was it more that your friends just didn’t know what to say?

A. In most cases, people simply didn’t know what to say. But I do talk in the book about a friend of three decades who lives 1,000 miles away and emailed me. It’s ironic that she had breast cancer herself, because she said: “O Letty, I was so sad to hear the news! It’s almost unbelievable because you’ve always been so vibrantly healthful and youthful. How are you?” It was if she was saying, “this is the end of who you are.” It was an erosion of who I was as a human being. It cut me to the quick.

Q. Why do we struggle so much with what to say?

A. I think it’s about our own vulnerability. When someone gets sick, it reminds us of our mortality and challenges. When we are younger, we think this can happen to me. If we are older, we think, this is going to happen to me. It’s a very natural reaction in our culture. Illness is very sanitized. We don’t really talk about what illness looks like and feels like and especially the big problems when people don’t get better.

Q. You hear a friend has been diagnosed with cancer. What should you say?

A. As soon as you are told a person has cancer, you have an establishing conversation that goes: 1. Tell me what’s helpful and what’s not. 2. Tell me if you want to be alone and when you want company. 3. Tell me what to bring and when to leave.

When you say, “tell me what you really want me to bring” and you mean it and you say it, and underline it, boy this opens it up for everyone to be honest and forthright. You set the tone: This is our policy, to be truthful with each other.

Q. What were the acts of kindness or words said that made you feel better?

A. Someone who said “I have been thinking about you, but I wanted to make sure if I call you a couple times a week, it is not annoying.” That person picked up on that getting those calls twice a week was not what I needed. I didn’t want to be “cancer girl,” and if everyone called me asking me “How are you?” that would be a lot of calls. … I would say, let’s do email and I would send out a group email. Other people want to talk about their illness and what they are going through. You have to shape your response to the needs, personality and condition of your friends as well as the nature of the experience.

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