GIST OF THE DAY: How to be a friend to a friend who's sick or grieving

When Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with
breast cancer in 2009, she became fascinated by
the reactions of those around her. The last
thing she expected was to lose friends. While
some friends coped, others "seemed ill at ease,
and still others actually pulled away from me or
disappeared altogether as if my cancer were
catching" says the US writer and lecturer.
"The ones who made me feel worse were those
who treated me as if I was 'cancer girl' - as if
my illness had become my entire identity, or as
if I were doomed. One person, when I first told
her my diagnosis, actually asked, 'Is it
Pogrebin says the reason why some people
struggle to deal with a friend who is sick or
grieving is because "witnessing our friends'
suffering arouses our own repressed sense of
vulnerability and fear of death".
Keren Ludski, the manager of the bereavement
counselling and support service at the
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement in
Victoria, agrees that it is hard to know how to
offer support to a grieving or sick friend. "It is
difficult not to use our own frame of reference,
our own experiences, beliefs and fears. Often
this leaves the support person feeling
vulnerable and helpless. We tend to be a
society that likes to 'fix' things and when we
find ourselves in the position where we are
unable to 'fix' the situation we may find this
incredibly confronting."
To discover why some of her friends were, as
she says, "awkward, inarticulate or insensitive"
Pogrebin decided to write a book. She
interviewed more than 80 people, those who
were physically ill, and "people who'd been sick
at heart either because of financial ruin, worry
about a family member's illness, or the loss of a
loved one". They told her what was helpful as
well as what they wished their friends had said
or done. How to Be A Friend to A Friend
Who's Sick was published in April.
"We try to be useful because it's hard to be
passive in the face of a friend's anguish or
pain," she says. "We struggle with our own
powerlessness which is deeply unsettling to us
and often makes us behave in bizarre ways, for
instance by being overly solicitous or by
infantilising the sick person. ('Have you gone
wee-wee yet?' is one unforgettable baby-talk
line)." She also recalls a women she interviewed
who had undergone a mastectomy being told by
a friend, "Well at least you're married".
She says when friends don't know what to say,
they give advice such as "You should try
acupuncture" or "My aunt had that disease and
she took megadoses of Vitamin C".
"When we are really scared or worried about a
friend we resort to clichés like 'I'm sure you'll
be fine' or 'It could be worse'. But none of
these comments is helpful to the patient; these
words just make the friend feel better."
Pogrebin says "the friends who were most
helpful were those who were direct and honest
about their own feelings - those who said how
sorry they were that I had to go through this
ordeal, and who made it clear that they really
wanted to be helpful, they weren't just
mouthing off. What friends need is caring
friendship, a listening ear, and a heightened
sensitivity to their needs".
Rhondalynn Korolak, a 45-year-old from
Melbourne, is supporting her best friend who
has breast cancer and lives in Canada. She talks
to her friend each week on the telephone and
has mobilised a crowd-sourcing website to get
more than $12,000 in donations to support her
medical expenses. "I am primarily there to
support her in her choices and also to help if I
can with communicating her situation to friends
and fundraising if needed," she says.
Korolak says because both women have lost
someone close to them, "there are no secrets,
fears or vulnerabilities that we haven't already
shared and experienced together.
"I don't feel the need to fill the air with clichés
or platitudes. What I want is for her to know
that I am here to listen (or to talk) about
anything and everything. There were so many
things left unsaid when my mother died. I
never want to be in that position again. I want
to make sure that we've left no stone unturned,
no topic undiscussed, no feelings left
To help friends step up to the challenge of
being supportive, Ludski suggests the
- Listen to them, without any judgement, if they
want to open up. The best form of support is a
compassionate ear.
- If they don't feel like talking, don't push
them. Sometimes you are providing comfort by
just being there.
- Emotional support can be given in the form of
human touch, holding the person's hand or
simply giving them a hug.
- Keep in contact, even just by phone.
- Don't change the subject if the deceased/
illness comes up in conversation. If you are
supporting a grieving person use the name of
the deceased in conversation so that your friend
knows that his/her loved one has not been
- If you are unsure as to how to support your
friend, ask them to tell you.

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