“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.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *