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Advice for Sick Friends
Mom with a View

Advice for Sick Friends

Sometimes our advice is not only wrong, it’s hurtful.


In Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s new book, “How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” she says something very wise and very important. And she’s very blunt. It’s something that can actually be extrapolated to many of life’s challenges.

Under the heading, Ten Commandments for Conversing with a Sick Friend, she advises:

10. Don’t pressure them to “keep up the fight” or practice “positive thinking.” It’s cruel to imply that negative thoughts – that is, feeling discouraged, not battling hard enough, not having the “right attitude” – caused their illness in the first place or may have compounded their suffering. If your friend keeps getting sicker, the last thing they need is to blame themselves…Don’t say, “You’re gonna beat it!” when you know they probably won’t. Positive thinking can’t cure Huntington’s disease, ALS, or inoperable brain cancer. Telling a terminal patient to “Keep up the fight!” isn’t just futile; it’s mean. Don’t make a dying patient feel guilty for having lost the fight. Don’t make death into a personal failure.

As the author states so powerfully, it’s cruel to suggest in any way, that the sufferer is to blame for his pain or has the power to alleviate his situation if only he would apply himself.

This is a variation on the new age theme of sending positive thoughts out into the universe whenever there is something you wish to acquire or accomplish.

Now I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon. It’s good to send out positive thoughts, certainly better than sending out negative ones. It’s just not a guarantee of any return. The world doesn’t work that way. The Almighty is not a Coke machine. If it were so simple to control the future, wouldn’t more of us being doing it? Wouldn’t those store-front psychics purchase much grander facilities with all their lottery wins and successful stock market picks?

The type of attitude that Ms. Pogrebin objects to only serves to hit a man when he is already down. Contrary to the speaker’s belief, rather than empowering the listener, it actually heightens their sense of powerlessness. And it’s childish, magical thinking to believe that we – and our thoughts – have so much power and control.

People who are ill or struggling want – and need – support. What they don’t want (or need!) are suggestions that they aren’t doing enough, that they would succeed if they would only try a little harder. It diminishes them, their efforts and their situation.

I had a friend who was struggling with infertility. A mutual acquaintance told her the story of another family dealing with the same issue. Instead of focusing on themselves, this other family prayed for at third friend who was also barren. And, lo and behold, the friend conceived. “See,” said the acquaintance. “Just pray for someone else to have children and your problem will be solved.”

If only it was so simple to solve the painful issue of infertility.

But, like Letty Pogrebin writes, it’s not just that the advice is wrong, it’s hurtful. It suggests that the issue is somehow my friend’s fault and that if she really wanted it to change, it would; that there is a tried and true panacea for everything that ails us.

This is not how the Almighty operates in the world. We aren’t privy to the myriad decisions that affect His supervision and His plan. We just know that there are a lot of them, that A plus B does not always equal C. We know that prayer is never wasted but we don’t know its exact impact. Likewise with all of our actions.

I hope that many people read this book. It’s full of interesting and important advice about visiting the sick and doing it in a way that is sensitive to the needs of patient as opposed to the self-righteous or insensitive goals of the visitor. But, in my mind, the most important service the author performs is to debunk and the destructive canard that a positive attitude towards illness or any other challenge guarantees success.

June 15, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 22

(17) Anonymous, July 1, 2013 11:49 AM

To the person who is dealing with MS. I am sorry you have to deal with so much unsolicited advice. You sound like a very intelligent person who is dealing with your MS as best you can.

(16) Scott, June 20, 2013 2:36 PM

Saying stupid things.

I've become really sensitive to this kind of thing. A couple years ago we had a stillbirth. It was horrible. Being part of a liberal congregation, we had a funeral for the little girl. We came back from the cemetery to find our house full of loved ones. Food showed up-enough to feed an army and someone found me a good bottle of wine for me to sit with. And that's what I did. I sat in the backyard and avoided people.

You see about a quarter of the people in our house had lost a friend or parent or sibling recently and seeing our pain brought out theirs. I could see it in their face. I had tried to share in their morning in one way or another during their time so I could see the familiar expressions. .They had advice, but really wanted to tell their own stories. How they were getting over it...but I wasn't getting over anything any time soon. I couldn't handle my grief and theirs so I hid and spent the afternoon talking to my wifes best friend's pentecostal boyfriend. My wife went and passed out in the bedroom with my mother on guard duty.

I think about this a lot. I think ill-timed "be positive" advice is more about our own fear of having no control over certain aspects of life. I think that we are by nature can we not be? We can only truly view the world through our own eyes, filtered through our own experience. We know our own pain and can handle only so much pain from others. The hardest thing one can do may be to sit silently and let someone whom you can do nothing for suffer in front of you. To realize that we too will get sick, experience loss and someday die and that sometimes there's nothing more that we can do about it than what we offer our hurting friend. Our presence and our prayer.

Sometimes we have to directly confront the idea that we have no control. And it scares us. So we say stupid things. Tell our own stories. But we can't listen to anyone of we're talking.

(15) Anonymous, June 19, 2013 4:18 AM

So True

Thank you for your wonderful article. After many years of living a healthy life, I recently "celebrated" my 50th birthday by beginning treatments for breast cancer.

Until I experienced cancer, I had no idea of how isolating a serious illness could be-- The exhaustion. The financial strain. The putting-on-of-a-happy-face for my children. The fear. The pain. The loss......

And yet, throughout this challenge, I have been amazed at one simple truth: That my friends and family actually care enough to cook meals, to accompany me to doctors' appointments, to pick-up my children from school, to leave cards in my office, to be a shoulder to cry-on when the "more-bad-news-call-came..."

I can’t count how many times I have cried, not in response to my diagnosis, but in response to these acts of kindness--- Because each gesture, no matter how "small," has been a treasured reminder that I am not alone......

(14) Anonymous, June 19, 2013 12:29 AM

Maybe We Should Ask the Sick What THEY want?

I really don’t think there are any rules for visiting the sick . Each one of us is unique and different in his or her view of reality. Every family with a sick member has different needs. For my part, I don’t agree with the particular quotation from the recommended book, because it seems to do the same thing as those overly zealous positive-thinking individuals: it make decisions for others about what should or should not be said. Do not say this or that when you “know” the sick person probably won’t make it. How do you “KNOW” that? You can predict the future? And how do you know that the sick person isn’t hoping for a positive remark?

I hope that the people who read the recommended book will keep in mind that while there are plenty of people who don’t want to be inundated with relentless positivism, there are also plenty of others who DO. For my part, I don’t want to be visited by the kind of friend who can’t wait to comfort me by letting me know it’s okay to go ahead and die and that death is not a personal failure. I already know that. I want to be told it’s okay to live, even if the medical staff isn’t expecting that outcome.

I want to hear about every new miracle treatment, every doctor who might be better than the one I have, every attitude change I might make that could improve my outlook, and how somebody you know got the insurance company to pay for a treatment they first denied.

And indeed, it also may be that our thoughts are not as powerful as the new-age crowd would have us believe, but neither are they as powerless as modern medicine used to think. We now have evidence that certain mindsets can turn genes on and off, and we have knowledge that the “nocebo effect” is no less powerful than the “placebo effect”..

Maybe the most helpful thing we can do for the sick is to actively listen to them in such a way that they feel validated and heard, whatever their experience is.

(13) yehudit, June 18, 2013 12:42 PM

So true, yet there is another side

I thought this was a wonderful article, and very true. We need to be so careful with words, especially during sensitive times. On the other hand, sick people (or others going through challenges) need to know that most comments and advice are only coming from a place of CARING. The person commenting feels so powerless, even guilty for being the healthy one, we just want to help in whatever way we can: we just want to GIVE. Sometimes it comes out as bad advice, or insensitivity. So this article gives us all pause for thought. Yet also people suffering need to understand that on the other side, we just want to HELP. Those comments come from a good place, and sometimes, we even realise moments after they pop out that they were innapropriate.
Bottom line, while we should all be careful what we say, we should also be more forgiving and judge favourably.

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