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

Case histories to learn from and live by

To Visit or Not to Visit, That is the Question

Sometimes sick folks just want to be left alone.

Sometimes sick folks just want to be left alone.

There are lots of reasons to visit a sick friend, most of which are pretty obvious. We visit to show our love and concern, to provide care, support and comfort, and to offer help when needed.  Less obvious and rarely discussed among friends are the reasons not to visit.

Old-fashioned illness etiquette decrees that well-bred people are expected to visit their ailing friends.  But rather than assume that your presence at the sickbed is welcome, I recommend that you first have an honest conversation with the patient to find out if she or he wants to be visited.

Ask them to be candid about their druthers: are they really in the mood for company or would they prefer to be left alone? Give them space to admit that they’re feeling grungy and anti-social, in pain or exhausted.  Reassure them that you very much want to see them and you’re eager to be helpful in any way possible -- but you won’t be insulted if they would just as soon spend the evening watching an old movie and eating ice cream in bed.

Although “just show up” is often touted as the gold standard of friendship behaviors, my research and interviews lead me to believe that it’s better to ask first and give your sick friends permission to tell you what they really want.  Otherwise, each of you will be going through the motions and doing what you think you’re supposed to do rather than what will actually make the patient feel better.

If your sick friends are gravely ill and unable to communicate their wishes, contact one of their relatives or caregivers and tell them that you’d like to visit but you want to make sure now is a convenient time. You might also ask for their guidance on how you can best be useful to the patient or family. Say you’d be glad to sit with the patient, to bring or do whatever is needed -- and make clear you mean it.  But don’t just land on their doorstep and impose yourself on the family during a difficult time.

Finally, do not visit a sick friend if:

  •   You have the flu or anything else contagious
  •   The patient has the flu or anything else contagious
  •   You’re feeling grumpy or surly and can’t snap out of it
  •   You had a garlic pizza for lunch

Here's to good health and great 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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