How to Be a Friend…When a Friend Is Most Needed

By Angie Engles

When it comes to being there for an ill friend, no matter how good our intentions or how warm-hearted we are, there’s always the chance we can end up saying or doing the wrong thing. In fact, sometimes the harder we try, the worse the results. In our eagerness to help or to see how our friends, loved ones, or co-workers are doing, we may inadvertently cross a line that we can never return to again.

That’s where Letty Cottin Pogrebin comes in with her very helpful and moving book How to Be A Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, a guide for anyone, claims author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who feels “dis-eased” when figuring out how best to talk to and support their ill friends. Whether it’s her chapter on what NOT to say to a friend (one lady told another “At least you’re already married” after she’d just had her mastectomy; a man visiting his friend in the hospital exclaimed, “God, you look awful!”) or how she covers hospital visits (never stay more than 20 minutes unless the friend is notably chatty, five or less if they’re in pain or yawning a lot), there’s a lot here that makes this a worthwhile read.

The real-life anecdotes Pogrebin shares to show what you should not say may sound horrific, but who among us has not said something well-intentioned but nonetheless totally wrong? (“You don’t deserve this” is a common mistake, but I had no clue “My thoughts are with you” is also not the best thing to say.)  And, believe it or not, the most basic opening line in human discourse, “How are you?” can also be upsetting. Alternatives include friends asking, “Are you well?” or adding, “I know that’s not a great question, but I really do want to know.” Better yet, instead of HOW, ask “WHAT are you feeling?”

Knowing what’s right to say and what isn’t is, of course, very important, but so is staying sincere.“Suppose we’ve been friends for 40 years,” former President Clinton once said, putting a hand on a reporter’s shoulder. “If you came to visit me in the hospital and said something pretty and eloquent instead of saying ‘God, I’m sorry. This sucks. I wish I could do more about it,’ it’s an insult.”

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Do understand that you are helpless in the face of your friend’s illness, especially if it is terminal.
  • Do share a list with her of chores you can help her with.
  • Don’t mention people who have been through something similar and are doing fine now.
  • Don’t say “I know what you’re going through.”
  • Don’t tell your friend she looks great when she looks anything but.

If there are so many things you could say that might come out wrong, what should you say? Try:

  • I’m so sorry this happened to you.
  • Tell me how I can help.
  • I’m here if you want to talk.
  • Just tell me when to leave.
  • I’m bringing dinner.
  • You must be desperate for some quiet. I’ll take the kids on Saturday.
  • That sounds awful! I can’t imagine the pain.

The best-intentioned lapses are most often forgiven, but this well-written and insightful book may help save us from more in the future. The list of resources in the back is phenomenal, including contact places, more books to assist in helping your friends, and great ideas.

As lovely and deeply sincere as Pogrebin’s book is, she’s right when she says it basically comes down to two things: telling each other the truth and treating your sick friends like you always did before they got ill. Listen, truly listen to them, and take hints from your friend and things should go well.

There are tons of handy resources listed in the afterword, but some of the best ones are online:

  • Caring Bridge  is a great resource for networking information and communicating between and among friends of the patient.
  • CarePages is perfect for finding discussion forums and referrals, connecting patients with friends and caregivers.
  • Breast Cancer Freebie$ shares ways to get free wigs, hats, make-up, housecleaning, transportation, and more.
  • Share The Care offers referrals, instructions, and educational materials as well as ways for supporting friends and family members to organize a supportive, nurturing group.

If you find yourself needing more information, you may also want to check out another HCLS-owned title dealing with the same subject,  The Etiquette of Illness : What to Say When You Can’t Find the Words by Susan P. Halpern.


Angie Engles has been with the Howard County Library System for 17 years, 14 of which were at the Savage Branch. She currently works at the Central Branch primarily in the Fiction and Audio-visual departments. Her interests include music, books, and old movies.


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