Health & Wellness

How to be a good friend to someone who's sick

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Letty Cottin Pogrebin noticed that some of her friends and family read her just right while others behaved awkwardly, misspoke or misinterpreted her needs.

Now a cancer survivor, Pogrebin has used her experiences to write “How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick.”

Pogrebin, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, interviewed fellow patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and others who suffered serious medical conditions to find out what they wished their friends knew when it came to comforting, helping and even talking to them (instead of staying silent) during their illness.

Some of the typical things people say to an ill friend are not the best things to say, Pogrebin told Willie Geist on TODAY Wednesday.

“The two things that come naturally for you to say are, ‘How are you?’ and ‘You look great,’ to make the person feel good,” she said.

Asking how somebody is, Pogrebin says, “is a big mistake for somebody who is sick because you hear it constantly and you hear it with intonations that are depressing,” she said.

“You really don’t want to revisit your diagnosis, the worst part of your treatment,” she told Geist. “You don’t want to go back there.”

It’s far better to ask, “What are you feeling?” Pogrebin said. “It’s so simple. It opens it up for the person to tell you, ‘I feel good,’ or ‘I have pain’ or ‘I’m depressed.’”

She advises people to avoid feel-good cliches like “God only gives you as much as you can handle,” or “You don’t deserve this,” because as Pogrebin asked, “Who does?”

Alternatively, friends should offer comfort with simple phrases like “I’m sorry this happened to you,” “Tell me how I can help?” and “I can’t imagine what it’s like,” she said.

“You really can’t unless you’ve been there exactly,” Pogrebin said. “You don’t know that kind of pain. Don’t equalize yourself with the patient.”

Pogrebin offers three basic rules for when a friend or relative is ill.

  • Ask the patient what’s helpful and what is not. “You want an honest exchange as soon as you can possibly start,” Pogrebin said. “Say to the friend, ‘I want us to be able to talk honestly about what you need and what you don’t like.’”
  • Ask patients if they want visitors or want to be alone. “We assume everyone wants company and the best thing to do is show up,” Pogrebin said. “Sometimes it isn’t.”
  • Ask the patient what you can bring and when you should leave. “I might bring you a bunch of flowers you’re allergic to or chocolate when you get hives from chocolate,” she said, “whereas what you may want is an ice pack.”

Friends often stay too long when they visit someone who is ill. “Most people think their wonderful presence is going to be healing but it isn’t,” Pogrebin said. “It’s not necessarily healing. It may be that you just want to sit there and keep the person company or it may be the best thing you can do is say, ‘Goodbye, I can see you are tired.’”

Although Pogrebin’s experience was with cancer, her book covers many kinds of illnesses, ranging from a broken leg to chronic disease to alcoholism to depression.

“All of this can make you sick at heart,” she said. “It’s the physical and the emotional and the mental and people will give back whatever they’re ready to give to you.”

“You have to really gauge the mood of the person and the condition they’re in,” she said.


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