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Being A Friend To Someone Sick: Advice From Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Empathy + action = kindness


Feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin discussed her new book, How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick, at Chicago’s Tribune Tower Monday, as part of the Printer’s Row literary series.

Pogrebin, a breast cancer survivor, spent most of her presentation telling the emotionally-charged room of fans, caregivers and journalists what not to say or do when friends first learn of a serious or terminal diagnosis.

“The thing that bothered me the most was the gossip,” Pogrebin said, recounting her own diagnosis at age 70.

Upon learning of her cancer, Pogrebin told only her family and 12 “uber-pals.” Humans have concentric circles of intimacy, Pogrebin said, and she told only those she completely trusted.

However, word of her diagnosis eventually reached Pogrebin’s outer circle of friends and acquaintances. Someone let the secret slip.

Pogrebin soon became inundated with concerned calls from acquaintances and colleagues. With each conversation, Pogrebin felt forced to once again explain her diagnosis, and in turn, she relived painful emotions. “My advice: Tell everyone so you can tell them all at once.” If she could rewind and do it a different way, Pogrebin would have sent a mass email to both explain her diagnosis and ask not to be disturbed.

Furthermore, Pogrebin insisted these phrases should never be uttered to a sick friend:

“Oh my God!”

“How are you?”

“You look great!”

“It’s God’s plan.”

These phrases, she said, can sound both fake and cliche. “Do you really want to know how I am? Did I not look good before?” Pogrebin laughed.

Instead, she advised that it may be more prudent to say something such like, “I’m so sad for you” or “I will be here for you, the moment you need it, and I mean it.”

Sometimes, Pogrebin said, family and friends visit just to make themselves feel better. “But what about the patient?” The sick person has to entertain the guests, get dressed, explain their most traumatic moments, and wonder if the person really even cares to know the full story. She suggested friends call before a visit, or plan a future date for dinner- once the patient starts feeling better.