How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick

What It’s About

A cancer survivor writes an in-depth etiquette book for those with chronically ill loved ones.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Given the title and subject matter of this book, you could be forgiven for thinking it has niche market, which you are probably not in. Now that I’ve read it, I disagree. I think it is a good book to read if you want to understand the perspectives of people in hard circumstances. It think it is a good book if you spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the world a kinder, more empathetic place. And, frankly, because everybody will probably have a sick friend someday, it’s a good book to read just in case.

I think one question that is incredibly hard to answer, in modern times, is “how to be a genuinely kind person?” It’s hard to ask, for that matter, because even to ask it is to raise insecurities. And I don’t think modern society is creating some kind of horrid post-manners hellscape from which decency will never emerge again. Nor do I think we need to reclaim antiquated norms in order to be nice again. We have come up with a new society. We need to invent new rules to go along with them.

I’ve read some attempts at inventing new rules, and a lot of them have frustrated or upset me. They have been too married to the author’s limited experiences; that one person takes how they would like to be treated and projected it on the entirety of modern culture. What I love about Letty Cottin Pogrebin is that she does not just give a list of ways she would love to be treated. She talked to her fellow cancer patients, and reached out to people with different health problems, and created her book from an aggregate of experiences. She talks about things that some patients appreciate and others don’t. She offers suggestions of things to offer or ask about, and tips on how to recognize when you are tasking a sick person with too many questions. She lists of things that hardly any sick or disabled person wants to hear. She goes into the fine art of caring for a sick person’s caregiver. She explains why, barring a few special circumstances, health advice is rarely appreciated but ice cream nearly always is.

On top of that, the prose style is simply delightful. She has a fantastic sense of humor that is equal parts snark and self-deprecation, and at the same time the whole book feels very warm and caring. It was like hanging out with your cool great-aunt; the politically active one who drinks wine and knit you a Hogwarts scarf that one Christmas. The great-aunt who knew which house colors to use, because she gets you.

It’s not only a fantastic primer on how to help sick people, but a good framework for how to talk about kindness and empathy in general, and frankly a really fun read.

Content Warnings

There’s not a lot to be afraid of here. She does mention some potentially disturbing medical conditions, but keeps a good balance between frank and tactful, so even if you’re easily grossed out by hospital stuff you’ll probably be okay. Honestly, the biggest content warning I can issue is for language. As an author, her voice is not one you would usually associate with profanity, but every so often she likes to make the point that, for someone in real pain, sometimes you just gotta unleash your inner sailor. I really liked that.

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