How to Support a Sick Friend: Illness Etiquette from Letty Pogrebin

What’s the first thing you say to someone when they tell you that they have been diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness?

If you don’t know what to say, or feel like you sometimes say the wrong thing, you are not alone. Until now, there haven’t been many rulebooks for social situations like these. “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” a new book written by Jewish writer, feminist and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, provides a helpful guide to “illness etiquette.”

For starters, according to Pogrebin, there are just some comments that should never be uttered: “Oh my God!” “How are you?” “You look great!” and “It’s God’s Plan,” are all common responses that she heard when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010. “These phrases can sound both fake and cliche,” Pogrebin says. “It makes the sick person wonder ‘Do you really want to know how I am? Didn’t I look good before?’ Saying something like, ‘I’m so sad for you’ or ‘I will be here for you the moment you need it, and I mean it,’ are more real and empathic responses.”

Her book isn’t trying to be the Bible on all illness issues, but it does provide basic, practical “10 Commandments for Conversing with a Sick Friend.”

Pogrebin says your conversations should be guided by three priorities:

Avoid self-referential comments or anecdotes. “A friend suffering complications of pregnancy won’t be helped by your childbirth story, nor will someone with a cough feel comforted to hear, ‘You think that’s bad? I had double pneumonia,’” she says.

Never talk to a sick friend the way you talk to a child. Banish lines like these from your speech: “Did we have our medicine today?” or “Now, that’s a good boy!” “Sick people are already made to feel powerless by their illness and the medical system. Don’t make things worse by infantilizing them,” she says.

Think twice before giving advice. Even if you know ginkgo biloba supplements would do your friend a world of good, try to keep your opinion to yourself. Sick people are already overwhelmed with information, so just trying to understand their own diagnosis can be a challenge. No matter how well intentioned you are, don’t complicate their lives any further with your tips. They have doctors for advice; what they need from you is friendship.

From her personal experience, Pogrebin decided to write a book that would not only tell her story, but also provide new insights to this often-taboo subject. “My goal is to change the norms of illness etiquette so that from the moment your friend confides her or his diagnosis, the two of you establish a policy of complete candor.”

She suggests being upfront by saying something like, “I want to be useful and supportive to you throughout this ordeal, but I’m not always going to know the right thing to say or do. I hope you’ll give me a heads up on what’s helpful and what’s not.”

“But by the same token, you have to be honest, too,” Pogrebin says. “Don’t say, ‘I’m here for you anytime,’ unless you mean it.”


Letty Pogrebin will be speaking about her book, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” Tuesday, June 11 from 7-8:30 p.m. at Beth Emet Synagogue, 1224 Dempster St. in Evanston. Admission is free and books will be available for purchase.