When friends suffer

I've lost several friends over the past two years, to fatal illnesses, and several more have recovered after harrowing treatment.

I've just read an essential article in The New York Times (Sunday, June 12) that I wish I'd had then; I hope it will be useful to you, too.

Bruce Feiler's "You Look Great and Other Lies" tells us Six Things You Should Never Say to a Friend or Colleague Who's Sick and Four Things You Can Always Say. 

Brilliant, a must. (I've said at least four of the Never Says.) We say them with good intentions (plus fear, anger, embarrassment and a swirl of other emotions) even as we know there must be a better way to express our love, caring and hope.

More comments about the role friends can play is in this short clip of the Canadian journalist June Callwood, (about 8 min.) in an interview with George Stromboulopoulos a short time before she died in 2007. These few minutes illuminate her wisdom, humour and strength even as she faced the end. Her remark about squash soup is etched in my mind, among more profound comments about marriage, the hereafter and the gift of life.

In 1987, Callwood wrote "Twelve Weeks in Spring"  a clear-eyed account of how a group of friends about cared for their ill friend; it too offers much about how to be present. Nearly 25 years years after being written, Twelve Weeks remains an illuminating description of how friends, and even those unknown to the ill person, can support her.

We still have a ways to go with home hospice care, but with more of us aging, it's on my mind and on my 'activist list'.

"In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."
- Mother Teresa


Anonymous said…
Good morning. Love your writing. But did you mean a different George?
Susan said…
This is helpful information. I've already shared it with a friend who has two friends who have cancer.
Jane M said…
Isn't that a wonderful article. I read it yesterday and know that ts message is much needed. I've been pondering the mystery of life and loss and suffering so much in the last year. Nothing that has touched me personally but so many wonderful people around me. This article helps me make sure that I am being of use to them in more helpful ways.
Susan B said…
Thanks for highlighting that article. It's good to know, and yes, I've said some of the "never's" in the past too.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: Oh yes, I did! Thanks, I've corrected it.

Susan and une femme: We will increasingly need this advice, glad it's useful.

Jane M.: I admire how he packed so much wisdom into one short piece.
Thank you so much for addressing the most important (but so often avoided) subject. I'm very indebted to you for what I've learned this morning from your writing.
emma said…
The "Don't" List - what a powerful piece! Thanks for sharing it with us. I'll listen to June Callwood tonight. This post reminds me of Bonnie Burnard's Suddenly. Have you read it?
Duchesse said…
Vivienne: I am very happy that this is useful to you, it is one of those articles that will make us better for reading it.

emma: Have not read Suddenly and at your suggestion will download it on my reader. You are going to be moved by that Callwood clip, I am sure.
materfamilias said…
Feiler's is a wonderfully useful article. As much as we might wish to be spontaneously sincere, in difficult circumstances, when words don't come easily (certainly not the right ones), it's good to have a repertoire of working phrases to convey our love, concern, and, above all, support. I'm looking forward to seeing Callwood speak -- she was such a treasure.
Mardel said…
Wonderful article, and thank you for pointing it out. I've said some of those phrases as well, although I have been much more sensitive about them lately watching several family members and friends suffering. it is a good reminder, and information we will all be called upon to recall.

I'm looking forward to the video, I have it saved to watch later.
I have several friends and relatives with cancer one died and the others are still in treatment...
I have struggled with what to say too.
I find doing is the easy route for me.
I always cook and deliver the food with flowers and
maybe a stack of magazines or some funny DVD's

I listen more than talk...it's a very difficult situation for all involved.

Thank you for linking the article.
Susan Tiner said…
Thank you for this post. I am guilty of saying some of those "nevers" but also getting some of the "always" right. Especially the one about not writing back, or attaching any kind of obligation to the help I give.

The video is really sweet. I especially enjoyed what she had to say about her marriage and their experience living with her terminal illness.
Anonymous said…
That was a very useful article - thank you. A fair bit of it applies to bereavement too. The 'what can I do' question was one that always got me after my husband died. I didn't feel I could say 'come round and hoover/wash up/help the kids with their homework because I would rather curl up in a cupboard and cry'. It would only have caused offence.
Anonymous said…
Oh, I heard a bit of an interview with the author of this article on NPR and I have been guilty of "faux pas" as well.
LPC said…
This has been huge on Twitter. I haven't read it yet. But if you think it's important, I will.
Anonymous said…
Hospice care is not all it's cracked up to be. I had 2 friends die of cancer in pain last year and without proper meds due to reactions to morphine and no alternative was offered. In Europe dying people are allowed to use heroin. It is legal in Canada but the Canadian Cancer Society ensures that the only supplier does not release it. Keep that in mind before donating to them next time. If I am terminal I will end my life with street drugs before I will subject myself to so-called hospice care but I am hoping that right-to-die becomes law before that similar to what they have in Oregon. People have no clue what dying with dignity really is, it is not dying in pain and fear or starving to death which is how some people go.
Duchesse said…
matrfamilias: I spent yesterday around a pool with a friend who knew her slightly, as did I, and we had a June memorial lovefest.

mardel: I have been using "Want to hear some good gossip?" even with the elders I visit who are not ill, just semi-reclusive. Works wonders!

hostess: Listen more than talk is a wonderful addition, thanks.

Susan: She was an incredible woman and if not familiar to you before now, happy you met her.

Alieen: Yes, it applies to any situation where a friend suffers.

Terri: Glad he is getting the coverage.

LPC: It is worth the 5 min. it takes, times over.

Anonymous: Some deaths are traumatic no matter where the person is cared for. I infer that you have the plan for yourself.

I don't agree that "People have no clue what dying with dignity really
is, it is not dying in pain or fear or starving to death...". My observation is that most people do have a clue.

Have you seen the doc "Dying at Grace", about the hospice floor at Grace Hospital, Toronto where June Callwood died?
coffeeaddict said…
I loved seeing the interview with June Callwood, what a remarkable person. I only hope I can retain half as much grace and dignity as she did, when facing the inevitable.
As for the Dos and Don'ts, I am on the fence. Different things may work for different people and I find that it is better to try and be honest, even if a bit clumsy at expressing oneself than fall into the safe zone of preformatted behaviour.

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