Letty Cottin Pogrebin has written an indispensable guide when a member of one’s family or a dear friend becomes ill or suffers a tragic death, what to do, say and not say, how to respond and be the friend the stricken most needs.
Letty is a founding editor of Ms Magazine, an award winning journalist, a non-fiction and fiction writer (this is her 10th book), a political and peace activist, and a loving wife, mother, grandmother, and friend.
As a rabbi who confronts every kind of illness, trauma, disability, and loss, I have not seen a more complete and exhaustive guide than this book on how we can all help each other when we are in need of a friend.
Letty is insightful, intuitive, generous, kind, empathetic, warm hearted, and loving. She is refreshingly self-revealing in this book and so the book is also an autobiographical chronicle, which gives the reader permission to be vulnerable and to share with our own loved ones our vulnerabilities and needs.
She was moved to write this volume after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. During and after treatment Letty was struck by how her family and friends reacted to her, how awkward some were and how others understood what she needed and how to help, support and nurture her.
In her research she spoke with more than 80 fellow patients, family and friends who had had cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s Disease, diabetes, MS, Parkinson’s Disease, mental illness, dementia, catastrophic financial ruin, and the death of children. She interviewed doctors, nurses, and hospital workers, clergy of various faith traditions, and complete strangers. She learned the Do’s and Don’ts of interacting with the ill and their families, that there is no one template on how to behave, that everyone has different needs, and that sensitive friends will thoughtfully think through what makes sense for the individuals they love and what are their unique needs, and then behave accordingly.
“The stories I collected from others,” she wrote, “helped me understand my own reactions and fueled my determination to be a better friend to my ailing friends. Among other lessons, I learned that it’s not enough to be a good hearted person if you’re oblivious to the pain in someone’s eyes; that friendship can nourish, help, and heal but also disappoint and suffocate. With every interview I marveled at how thin and permeable is the membrane between good intentions and bad behavior, how human it is to be both strong and vulnerable, and how people process the sickness, stress, and sorrow of their friends in many different ways.”
Letty considers every conceivable aspect of how to refine the art of friendship when a dear one becomes ill or suffers loss. She reviews “Goofs, Gaffes, Platitudes, Faux Pas, Blunders, Blitherings – and Finding the Right Words at the Right Time.” She reflects on what to ask of a patient and what to avoid saying. She offers a list of “Ten Commandments for Conversing with a Sick Friend” and enumerates who should visit and what constitutes a “good visit.” Her list of “Twenty Rules for Good Behavior While Visiting the Sick, Suffering, Injured, or Disabled” is a common sense guide that even those with plenty of sechel are well-advised to review.
Letty considers as well the differences between men and women in their coping with illness, about the importance of being sensitive to a person’s shame and/or need for privacy, and the necessity that friends always “show up.”
She writes: “Entering other people’s truth, I learned that illness is friendship’s proving ground, the uncharted territory where one’s actions may be the least sure-footed but also the most indelible; that illness tests old friendships, gives rise to new ones, changes the dynamics of a relationship, causes a shift in the power balance, a reversal of roles, and assorted weird behaviors; that in the presence of a sick friend, fragile folks can get unhinged and Type A personalities turn manic in order to compensate for their impotence; and that hale fellows can become insufferably paternalistic, and shy people suddenly wax sanctimonious.”
Letty not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2009 requiring surgery and radiation (I am fine now) just before Letty’s own diagnosis, she was an attentive friend from across the country. Supportive, nurturing and kind I felt seen and cared about that inspires my gratitude still.
What she learned subsequent to her own diagnosis deepened her capacity and understanding not only of what she needed, but what others need. Now she has written a book that offers the reader the benefits of her experience, wisdom and love.
I recommend this volume without reservation.