How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick

Case histories to learn from and live by

What Not to Say to a Friend Who's Sick

Navigating the hazardous intersection between friendship and illness.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout my surgery and radiation treatments, I became intrigued by my friends’ and family’s diverse reactions to me, how awkwardly some of them behaved; how they misspoke or misinterpreted my needs; and how wonderful it was when some of them read me right. Curious about other people’s experiences, I began talking to my fellow patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center as well as to dozens of other veterans of serious illnesses of all kinds, seeking to discover what they wished their friends knew about how to comfort, help, and even just talk to them without making them feel different or doomed. 

In my forthcoming book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick, I’ve distilled everyone’s collective stories, insights, opinions and advice into a wide-ranging compendium of concrete guidance and usable wisdom.

We all know someone who’s unwell, infirm, or disabled. Yet when a friend or relative is under duress many of us feel uncertain about how to cope. We may freeze or panic in the face of another person’s misery, botch gestures meant to ease, attempt to problem-solve when we have no idea what we’re talking about, say the wrong thing, or talk too much. Some of us don’t visit our sick friends at all. Others visit, overstay, and make things worse.

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In my book, I weave advice gleaned from 80 interviews with candid stories from my own journey through the land of the sick and my sometimes imperfect interactions with my own sick friends. 

Here,  I’m happy to introduce my new blog on Psychology Today where I’ll be sharing my research and writing about the complex demands illness makes on friendship and how best to respond to these challenges. I’ll also be soliciting your stories about what you and your friends have done for each other to bring relief and pleasure to those who are sick or suffering. 

To launch this blog, let’s start with what to say and how to say it.  Or, better yet, what not to say.  My interview subject informed me that these are some of the lines people most definitely do not want to hear:

    “God only gives you as much as you can handle.”

    “Isn’t it time you reached closure?”

    “Everything happens for a reason.”

    “My aunt had the same thing.”

    “it could be worse.”

    “You don’t deserve this.” (As if anyone does.)

    “Chin up.”

    “He’s in a better place.”  (To a mourner)

    “You think that’s bad, I had the worst case of [fill in the blank]!

    “It could be in your head.”

    “Maybe it happened for the best.”

I’m hoping you’ll contribute to our dialogue and weigh in with the worst thing anyone has ever said to you when you were sick, or the worst thing you’ve ever said to a sick friend.  If you’ve never experienced or committed a verbal blunder but you’re presently dealing with a sick friend and want advice about how to converse more easily and meaningfully, let us know that too.

Until then, here’s to good health and friendship.        

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine and past president of The Authors Guild, is an award-winning journalist, speaker, activist, and author of ten books.

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