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‘Clueing in’ to the needs of ailing friends
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‘Clueing in’ to the needs of ailing friends

Questions for Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin at work in her Manhattan home.     
Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin at work in her Manhattan home.     

After Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, some of her friends “just disappeared,” she said. “They just didn’t feel comfortable with being as close to somebody as I was to them and have that person suddenly become vulnerable. I took note of that and decided I was going to find a book that would help my friends be better friends to me. I couldn’t find a book like that — so I wrote one.”

A writer, feminist, and cofounder of Ms. Magazine, Pogrebin called her 2013 book How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. She will speak about it on Wednesday, April 30, at 8 p.m. at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, at the synagogue’s “Celebration of Wellness.”

Pogrebin discussed her work in an April 7 phone interview from her home in Manhattan. 

NJJN: How did you do your research?

Pogrebin: I interviewed dozens of people who were at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where I was every day for six weeks. I learned a lot about what people found helpful or what was hurtful and meaningless. What I learned from them was that the things we say really have an impact.

NJJN: Can you give some examples? 

Pogrebin: When you hear that a friend has just been diagnosed with ALS and you say, “My aunt had it,” or “I’m sure you’ll be fine” when you don’t have the slightest idea what ALS is about. Or you’ll say, “God only gives you as much as you can handle.” Those lines are not helpful.

NJJN: Can you really generalize about what is helpful? Aren’t people receptive to different messages?

Pogrebin: We need to raise our consciousness as to the individual we are speaking to, how close we are to them, and how much we know about their situation, their condition. We have to put ourselves on notice that the Hallmark greeting card message is not enough. 

NJJN: What are some of the worst things people say?

Pogrebin: Believe it or not, people say to someone who has lost a child, “Well, at least you have two others.”

NJJN: If a friend tells someone, “I have cancer” or “My mother just died,” is it not appropriate to say, ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Is there a way I can help you?’” 

Pogrebin: The words “Is there a way I can help you?” have been uttered for centuries, and the other people answer, “Oh nothing, thanks.” We need to make clear we are not just mouthing off the way people have done for centuries. It is one thing to say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” and mean it and another to say, “Is there a way I can help you?” and not really mean it.

NJJN: If someone called you and said, “I have just been diagnosed with cancer,” what would you say?

Pogrebin: I want to help anyone who has been diagnosed in any way I can. I can tell them what I went through. But I did not have chemo or a mastectomy so I can’t tell them what that is like, and I don’t give them advice based on what my friend or the friend of my friend or my aunt’s cousin had. It is useless — useless and chutzpadick. But people do it anyway all the time.

NJJN: Is there a Jewish component to this issue?

Pogrebin: The whole notion of bikur holim — the mitzva that we should tend to the sick — is really about us feeling virtuous as good human beings. But Hillel trumps bikur holim. Hillel said, “Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you.” Hillel is the flip side of the Golden Rule. It is very important. When I interviewed 80 people, most of them did not want to be visited for the first few days after their surgery or diagnosis except by the closest of the close. 

NJJN: It seems as if these rules can be really hard to follow.

Pogrebin: They are not. It is clueing in to the body language and the circumstances the sick person is in. If it is cold in the hospital room, instead of sending the person flowers, you might want to send a warm wrap. People should pay attention to the reality of their friends.

NJJN: How helpful is the gift of humor?

Pogrebin: It can be a thoughtful thing. When I was waiting for the results after my exploratory surgery and the pathology report — which was the worst time for me — I knew when I opened up my e-mail each day there would be a joke from a friend. Asking me a million times “How ya doin’?” was not helpful. Making me laugh was. But that’s just me. A joke a day was fabulous.

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