Illness Etiquette 101

What not to do when a friend is sick

Reprinted with permission from "Speak the Language of Healing: Living With Breast Cancer Without Going to War," by Susan Kuner, Carol Matzkin Orsborn, Linda Quigley, and Karen Leigh Stroup. Copyright 1999 by the authors. Permission granted by Conari Press.

Do not ask, "How are you?"

How do you think they are? You already know they've got something serious. Why are you asking? What are you going to do with the information? When they hear these words from you, what they will really be hearing is this: "Are you going to die soon?" If you don't already know the details of their illness, you probably don't need to know.

If you are looking for a conversation starter, instead say, "It's great to see you!" Or, "I've been thinking about you a lot lately."

If you mean it, go on and ask a much better question, "Is there anything I can do?" Then offer something specific. Say, "Could you use help driving your daughter to her lessons?" or "May I bring you dinner tonight?"

Do not offer unsolicited medical advice.

You may be burning to share your theory about which hospital is the best, which drugs or therapy saved Aunt Bea's life. But before you blurt it out, ask your friend's permission. For instance, you can say--in a non-leading way--"Are you happy with your hospital?" If they are, then button it up. If not, you can ask, "Would you like me to do some research on other possibilities, or offer you some suggestions?"

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ANOTHER VOICE

It is said that God made the world as a perfect clay vessel. God entrusted one of her Chief Angels to deliver it. On the way, the angel tripped. The clay vessel broke and was shattered into billions of pieces. Rather than leaving us in a world that was already perfect, God left us with much work to do. In Hebrew, this work is called Tikkun Olam. It means "the restoration of the world," knitting the pieces back together. We do this by regarding one another and gathering together in communities bound by love. We cannot stop suffering, prevent illness, or overcome death. But there are things we can do. We can stand by. We can be witnesses. We can listen. We can offer support.

If I learned anything from cancer, it is that there are hundreds of loving hearts within reach. I found them where I least expected them. I found them among friends, and in the medical center. It is true that we cannot stop suffering. But we can remember the lesson of Tikkun Olam. We can knit the world together.

 --Susan Kuner
Do not theorize on why your friend created his or her illness.
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Carol Orsborn
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