Oct 20

“The Etiquette of Illness” by Susan Halpern

Although I’ve already addressed a related topic (see “Someone’s In Crisis: What Not to Say, What to Say“), when it comes to how to be with a sick or grieving loved one there’s more to add.
One of the main things I took away from reading Will Schwalbe‘s 2012 The End of Your Life Book Club (see previous post) was his use of info from therapist Susan Halpern‘s 2004 The Etiquette of Illness in his ongoing frequent conversations with his terminally ill mom.

Here’s what Halpern suggests when relating to someone who’s sick:

#1 “Ask: Do you feel like talking about how you feel?”

#2 “Don’t ask if there’s anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it’s not intrusive, just do them.”

#3 “You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.”

Taking Number One to heart in his regular encounters with his mom, Schwalbe knew that rather than keep asking her how she was feeling he could ask if she even felt like talking about how she was feeling. There’s a significant difference.

Halpern really gets the struggle:

Of course we don’t know what to say…There is no training program for what to say, and some of us, happily, have very little experience. Some people I have met have felt abandoned in hard times by good friends. Sometimes people who are ill and feeling abandoned will call their friends, but that is rare. It is the role of the ‘well person’ to reach out. While it can be hard to initiate contact, doing so brings pleasure and solace to both parties.

Additional quotes from The Etiquette of Illness:

When people are suffering, they’re not open to hearing horror stories about others with similar maladies. There is less capacity for compassion at such moments.

When we help, we are in a potentially overpowering position.

Compassion occurs when we open our feelings to the feelings of another person, without judgement, pity, or a need to fix. It is an act of holding the fullness of feelings of another in our awareness and feeling suffering or joy with him or her; without becoming lost in the feeling.

Publishers Weekly‘s summary of Halpern’s contributions: “…[She] believes that what we say depends on the individual, the relationship and one’s own self-consciousness. So long as the words come from the heart, it is the expression of true compassionate feeling that will be remembered by the recipient.”

Oct 17

Books About Dying: “Book Club” and “Exit Laughing”

Two recent books about dying—done with humor. One with a good dose of humor and the other with humor as a theme.

In addition, a relevant scene from the comedy Roseanne (1988-97) is one of its best ever.

I. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When humanitarian Mary Anne Schwalbe was living with terminal cancer, her son Will came up with an unusual idea for an activity for them. And now, a few years after her death, you can read about in the recently released The End of Your Life Book Club.

Says son/author Will in the New York Times, “I privately dubbed our club ‘The End of Your Life Book Club,’ not to remind myself that Mom was dying, but so I would remember that we all are — that you never know what book or conversation will be your last.”

II. Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim

The second of these books about dying is Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim. From the publisher’s blurb: “As painful as it is to lose a loved one, Exit Laughing shows us that in times of grief, humor can help us with coping and even healing.”

In this collection, various authors tell true stories about dying and loss. For example: “…Amy Ferris explains how her mother’s dementia led to a permanent ban from an airline…Bonnie Garvin even manages to find a heavy dose of dark humor in her parents’ three unsuccessful attempts at a double suicide.”

Shelf Awareness“Death happens, and the writers in Exit Laughing show that humor can serve as an acceptable and beneficial means to mend broken hearts. Laughter, Zackheim writes in her introduction, ‘can open the door to emotions shared, and perhaps through this sharing we can not only process the reality of death but mend the complex and often difficult relationships we share with the person who is dying.'”

Sara Pritchard, author: “As funny and poignant as Harold and MaudeExit Laughing makes it clear that even the Grim Reaper will put on a monkey face and maybe even giggle, when tickled.”

Beverly Donofrio, author: “This gem of an anthology about what we fear, avoid, would rather not mention, let alone read about—death—is the funniest book I’ve read in years. Exit Laughing is a bold, outrageous, never sanctimonious, death-defying collection that looks straight in the eye of the inevitable while making you laugh real tears.”