Friday, May 16, 2014

HOW TO BE A FRIEND TO A FRIEND WHO'S SICK




Have you ever been at a loss for words?  What do you say or do to help when someone is ill, at a funeral, when hard times hit someone you care about a lot?  Would it help to have a book of tools and suggestions, concrete ways to be a good friend?

For Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the answer is a resounding yes.  She has spent more than seven decades of her life being pro-active, fighting for justice, a take-charge woman who knows how to get things done and done right. The author of ten books, a journalist, activist and a national lecturer, she co-founded Ms. Magazine with Gloria Steinem in 1971 and is a tireless advocate for peace, for women and for improving the human condition.

How appropriate is it, therefore, that when this strong, vibrant woman was given a diagnosis of breast cancer, she would research the disease and try to smooth the path for others facing illness and many of life's difficult problems.

Ms. Pogrebin spoke recently for the Women of Vision Society of the New Haven Jewish Foundation at Long Wharf Theatre about "How To Be a Friend To a Friend Who's Sick," her latest book, and shared her insights gleaned from dozens of interviews she conducted while awaiting her radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York.  Not one to waste time, she queried fellow patients and family members about what was helpful and not so much in conversations, actions, gifts and support, especially when crises occur.

Her overriding motto is "kindness is empathy plus action" and it is the strong foundation for all her helpful hints.  She offers lists of suggestions in a number of categories, like ways to help someone whose friend or loved one is sick. You might give frequent flyer miles, babysit their kids, be a secretary and take over personal communication to others, create a web page as a caring bridge to keep everyone informed of the patient's progress, burn a CD of music, stock their food pantry, bring over a meal or take them out to eat, suggest they keep a journal as an oral history of their loved one, call regularly and listen well, be available to help and only offer your company when it's desired.

Being compassionate and non-judgmental with someone who has experienced an issue of depression, attempted suicide, reversal of economic situations or a condition they are ashamed to admit.  Be there to listen and support.  Letty learned many of these lessons early on in her life when her mother died of cancer when she was only 15 years of age.

In hopeless situations, she suggests helping yourself first and then others, to be honest about your feelings, don't fade away, give care and keep company with the caregiver and preserve memories of better days.  If the family is in mourning, ask and act, watch for signals, be sensitive to needs, attend the funeral, express your sympathy briefly, simply, with heartfelt and short words, recall a personal positive story, avoid saying unfeeling comments, create a mourning ritual to honor the deceased, use the written word to express feelings to reflect on a life well lived and help the mourners find a support group if they desire one. Help them deal with their loved one's possessions.  Only offer to help if you mean it.  Be silent and listen.


10 Rules for Friends of a Parent Who's Lost a Child to Illness, Accident or Suicide: provide love and support for the long haul, pay attention to their needs, touch and comfort them.  Be demonstrative, with hugs and hand holding.  Don't rush their recovery, grieving is a personal journey.  Don't distract them with trivial activities.  Remember their child, talk and share.  Keep track of the calendar, mark special days, make a donation to charity in memory.  Don't let alcohol be an answer.  Alert others to why you are unavailable for them, as you are there for your friend. Don't feel a new baby can take the place of the one who died. 

There's an art to being a friend to a friend who's sick.  In the end, only kindness matters.  Translate empathy into action.  Know what to say, when to be silent, be comfortable in your silences and make each other feel safe.

Appreciate life and its wonders, enjoy "perfectly abundant" moments, don't postpone joy.  Be conscious of your miraculous heart and the "unexpected rewards of age and illness."  Be mindful that life comes with an expiration date.  Adapt a "sweetened taste for life," thanks to Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

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