When I was in the worst of a serious illness, one of the most confusing questions I had to answer on a daily basis was “How are you?” It was an innocuous question. Some who asked it knew me well, others were just parroting a generic greeting. “How are you?” Think how often you say that automatically when you meet someone or even talk on the phone. Think how often others say it to you.
How are you?
Standard answers are “I’m fine” or, more often these days: “I’m great.” But how do you answer when you are definitely NOT fine, NOT great. For me, the answer I chose depended on a complex calculation: What does the person already know about my condition + when was the last time I spoke with her + how much has my condition changed – (my current strength + my current level of emotional distress). Some days, I was too tired to do the calculation and would simply smile and change the subject.
Now, author Letty Cottin Pogrebin has written a marvelous book called “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.” It is based on her experiences with friends during her treatment for breast cancer, as well as the experiences of other people who are veterans of serious illness. According to amazon.com:
Pogrebin has distilled their collective stories and opinions into this wide-ranging compendium of pragmatic guidance and usable wisdom. Her advice is always infused with sensitivity, warmth, and humor. It is embedded in candid stories from her own and others’ journeys, and their sometimes imperfect interactions with well-meaning friends. How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick is an invaluable guidebook for anyone hoping to rise to the challenges of this most important and demanding passage of friendship.
Granted, there will be people who don’t need this book–those who automatically know what to do in every situation. But most people will learn some nugget of information that will serve their sick friends well. Here is my personal list of things I learned during my own illness about how to be a better friend to someone who is sick:
- Don’t ask me how I am, especially as an automatic phrase tacked on to the end of “Hello!” If I’m not well, I won’t feel like explaining why not.
- Do ask if I need anything from a specific store. For example, call and say, “I’m on my way to the grocery store–can I get anything for you?”
- Do ask about the best times to call, and how frequent. My time of greatest strength was always between noon and 5 p.m. But for some reason, many of my friends chose to call after 7 p.m. There were nights I was already in bed by then.
- Don’t stay on the phone too long. I have one friend who can’t seem to end a phone call unless we talk for an hour. I love her, but I can’t always do an hour, and I feel rude cutting her off. This means that when I see her caller ID come up on my phone, I have to decide if I have the strength to talk for an hour.
- Please don’t tell me about other people who have had my same illness, regardless of whether they had a good or bad outcome. The details of my illness will never exactly match the details of someone else’s illness. And while I understand the need to want to share an optimistic example, the reality is that it often serves to make me feel worse…especially if I just got bad news from my doctor.
- Tell me all those cute and funny stories about your kids, grandkids, pets, or coworkers that we used to laugh about before I got sick. My sense of humor hasn’t changed, but when I was very sick, people forgot to include me in the small, daily life stories. They are the BEST.
If you have do’s and don’ts of your own, please share them. This book discusses similar points, and more. It’s a book everyone should read–we’ll all need the information eventually. Keep friendships strong, through sickness and health!