TODAY   |  April 10, 2013

How to be supportive (not awkward) when a friend ails

When Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer, she began to notice how awkwardly some of her friends would behave. She talks about the book that was inspired by her experiences, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.”

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> when levy cotton was diagnosed with breast cancer she began to notice how some of her friends and family behaved around her, how some misspoke or misinterpreted her needs. she cofounded "ms." magazine with gloria stein ham. when she couldn't find a book to help friends who were ailing she decided to write one herself, "how to be a friend to a friend who is sick." good morning.

>> good morning.

>> you're cancer free a year?

>> i've been proclaimed a survivor.

>> and you are a survivor, that's the best news of this segment. it's such a difficult conversation for anybody to have, a good friend who is very ill, you want to comfort them in some way, want to say you look great. why is it so difficult for us?

>> you know, the two things that come naturally for you to say are how are you, that's the opening line of normal discourse, and you look great to make the person feel good.

>> you say that's not the way to go.

>> how are you a big mistake for somebody who is sick because you hear it constantly with intonations that are really depressing, like how are you? with a squeeze of the arm, and you hear it over and over again. and you really don't want to revisit your diagnosis, the worst part of your treatment, you don't want to go back there. so don't ask how are you. ask, what are you feeling? it's so simple. what are you feeling? it opens it up for the person to tell you. i feel good or i have pain or i'm depressed or whatever.

>> i feel like if i ask that, that's too much, i'm asking you to give me too much information about something you may not be comfortable talking about but that's okay.

>> they can answer i'm fine. the point is you have to really gauge the mood of the person and the condition that they're in. my book covers people who are going into alzheimer's, it covers people with chronic disease , people with a broken leg, somebody who is alcoholic, somebody who is depressed, somebody who just committed suicide, somebody who lost all their money with madoff, all of this can make you sick at heart so it's the physical and the emotional and the mental and people will give back whatever they're ready to give to you but at least you're saying, what are you feeling?

>> some of the other things you say.

>> not the cliche. you don't want to say, "god only gives you as much as you can handle" or you don't want to say "you don't deserve this," because who does?

>> you say also how are you? you want company? you look great, oh my god, you don't want that. but some of things to say, i'm sorry this happened to you. tell me how i can help. that's a good one.

>> that's it, two very good ones. another very simple one is, i can't imagine what it's like. because you really can't unless you've been there exactly. you don't know that kind of pain. you don't know what it feels like to have a drain coming out of your body. so for you to say oh, i know what you must be going through, you really don't, and don't equalize yourself with the patient. so i kind of have three basic rules in this book, and one is tell me what's helpful and what's not. you want an honest exchange. as soon as you can possibly start, say to the friend, i want us to be able to talk honestly about what you need and what you don't like. the second thing is do you want to be alone or do you want company? that's a very big one for people. we assume everyone wants company and the best thing to do is show up. sometimes it isn't. it may be the best thing to show up for the person taking care of your friend, but not for the friend, who may be miserable, want to sleep, in the middle of a nap, feeling ugly, all of that, and the third thing is tell me what to bring and when to leave. because you know, i might bring you a bunch of flowers that you're allergic to or chocolate, when you really get hives from chocolate, whereas what you may want is an ice pack , you know, so tell me what to bring, and tell me when to leave, because most people overstay. most people think their wonderful presence is going to be healing, but it isn't. it's not necessarily healing. it may be that you just want to sit there, keep the person company, or it may be the best thing you can do is say, you know, good-bye, i can see you're a little tired.

>> these are really difficult conversations for people to have and i think you've made it a lot easier with this book so congratulations, letty, thank you.

>> good to see you.