How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick 

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

(Public Affairs, $24.99, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Letty Cotton Pogrebin, who was a cofounder with Gloria Steinem of Ms. Magazine, has had a long and successful career as a prize-winning journalist, an opinion writer and a public speaker, as well as a  progressive political activist. She is the author of several nonfiction bestsellers, including “Growing Up Free,” “Getting Over Getting Older” and “Deborah, Golda, and Me” and the novel, “Three Daughters.” She also is a breast cancer survivor.

What is this book about?

Even the most caring and sympathetic friends and relatives may find themselves groping for the right words and actions when someone they care about is diagnosed with cancer or another devastating disease. Yet they want to offer comfort and help, even if they are not quite sure how to best do so.

Having survived breast cancer, Letty Cottin Pogrebin experienced the gamut of reactions from those close to her: sometimes awkward or badly expressed and  confused about what Pogrebin needed and how to offer it, but in other cases, happily, full of genuine understanding and real help. So, like any good journalist, she decided to write about it, but branched out by interviewing other patients and survivors of serious  illnesses or accidents about what they felt they really needed and how best others might provide it. She compiled their information so that others can learn how to talk the talk and walk the walk with those they love.

Why you’ll like it:

Pogrebin has a warm voice and a practical soul, and even when she is criticizing the way some people stumble when dealing with an ill friend, she does it with caring and humor. Mincing few words and acknowledging the sensitivity of both patients and caregivers, she offers pragmatic and useful advice at a time when emotion tends to cloud good judgment. Many will find this a most useful and comforting book for friends or family members aching to do the right thing but unsure about how to do it well.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “ Pogrebin, a veteran feminist and  author… uses her experience with breast cancer—she was diagnosed in September 2009 at age 70—and nearly 80 interviews with friends and patients to craft this bluntly practical and gently humorous guide to the dos and don’ts of caring for the ill. The list of tips is formidably long, and includes plenty of helpful advice: Don’t ask “how” someone is feeling, ask “what” they’re feeling; never start a sentence with “Oh my God!”; and be sure to say things like, “Tell me how I can help,” and “I’m bringing dinner”—or ice cream, laughter, or pot (to which she gives “the grand prize for Most Restorative Gift”). There are also accounts of patients themselves, like writer Nora Ephron, who surprisingly chose to keep her fatal illness a secret from friends. But it’s the bravery and wisdom Pogrebin … brought to her own battle that lifts this guide from a mere list of sickroom rules to invaluable lessons for sickness and health. Her cancer, she writes, “taught me the blessings of silence” and that there are times “when the kindest thing you can do” for the ill “is to confer upon them the honor of the ordinary.”

Says the Wall Street Journal:“[A] kind of communication chasm, the one between the ill and those who care about them, is addressed with sympathy and humor in Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” a guide to what might be called “compassion etiquette.”

“…A cancer survivor channels her ordeal into reflections on the nature of empathy and friendships…. In 2009, a routine mammogram revealed a suspicious mass that not only changed the author’s relationship to her body, but also the interactions with her friends, some of whom were hesitant to visit. Pogrebin’s text serves her well as both an informative guide and an autobiographical chronicle. Evenly distributed throughout are personal interludes from her battle with breast cancer combined with helpful sections guiding those who are conflicted “when your role in the relationship is no longer easy or obvious.” For many, she writes, worry for a friend’s sudden or prolonged illness can be an intimidating, touchy subject, and communicating genuine concern could understandably be met with either graciousness or an irritable “Thank you for caring. Now leave me alone.” The author’s sharp advice illuminates many of the more common gray areas governing what to say to an ailing friend, appropriate visitation frequencies and durations, and proper gifting. She also provides tips for good behavior when a friend’s parent or child is gravely ill. Much of this valuable “illness etiquette” comes from personal experience (Pogrebin’s mother died of cancer) and from survival stories told to her by fellow patients. Illness, she writes, will often prove a friendship’s mettle, and those who get it right will temper the unavoidable shame and embarrassment that often accompany serious health issues. A useful refresher course on navigating the complicated territory of compassionate companionship,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, says: “After examining a potentially difficult and nearly universal experience—dealing with a friend’s illness — from many points of view, Letty Pogrebin has turned her findings into wise and witty lessons about a prized but neglected human trait: empathy. In advising us on what to do and say, she also shows why she’s the kind of friend we all would want to have if we were sick.”

 “In How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, Pogrebin offers healthy doses of advice interspersed with a memoir of her own cancer sojourn. She promises a primer on empathy, and she delivers. She pens a call to action, and the stories — and truths — gathered in these pages will leave the reader fully equipped to become that life-affirming wonder, a Most Compassionate Friend,” says the Chicago Tribune.

When is it available?

This book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field, Dwight and Goodwin branches.

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