Posted by Marjorie U. Sokoll

Letty Cotin PogrebinLetty Cottin Pogrebin is a pioneer of the women's rights movement and was involved in the founding of Ms. Magazine. She is a woman who writes about her evolving Jewish identity over many decades. And she is once again at the forefront in her groundbreaking book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick, which teaches that "empathy translated into action equals kindness" for a friend who is sick.

Last week Letty spoke at Temple Isaiah in Lexington. JF&CS Jewish Healing Connections was delighted to be a community partner for this event, which was sponsored by the New Center for Arts and Culture. More than 200 people filled the sanctuary to hear Letty share personal stories as she was interviewed by NPR's Robin Young.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer at age seventy, Letty began her treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Realizing that her fellow cancer patients were a revolving population, she started to interview them about their struggles. What she gleaned from nearly eighty interviews and from her personal experience was what to do and what not to do with regard to friendship and illness.

She emphasized three things that we ought to be able to say to someone who is sick:

  1. Tell me what's helpful and what's not.
  2. Tell me if you want to be alone and when you want company.
  3. Tell me what to bring and when to leave.

She also urged friends to cultivate the capacity to truly listen and be present and not to try and fix. Laughter can also be very healing, and she described friends that sent her jokes and told her jokes. Ultimately, she advised us to not resort to clichés and platitudes. Rather we need to ask ourselves about our friend:

  1. Who is this person?
  2. What is his/her condition?
  3. What is my relationship with him/her?

She told the audience that she did not like it when people said "You look great!" because she had never heard that, 12 times a day, until she became sick. However, in her book she writes to the contrary saying, "I suggest that you keep saying ‘You look great!' simply because everyone else is probably saying it, and if you're the only one who doesn't, your sick friend may come to associate you with negativity and depression."

Letty emphasized that you don't want to cease being who you are and become your disease, and friends can help prevent that. However, there is inevitably a power imbalance between friends when someone becomes sick. And that ultimately, we never know when we may be the one needing support.

So I will end with one of my favorite quotes by the author Susan Sontag: "Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."

Marjie SokollMarjorie U. Sokoll, MEd, Director of Jewish Life and Healing, is the founder and director of JF&CS Jewish Healing Connections, which helps ensure that people feel a sense of connection when facing the challenges of illness, loss, or isolation by offering spiritual and communal supports to provide hope, comfort, and wholeness guided by Jewish tradition. "It is not good for people to be alone." (Genesis 2:18). Marjie also provides spiritual support for the JF&CS Parkinson's Family Support, is a founding partner at the Kalsman Institute for Judaism and Health, and holds a certificate of thanatology from the National Center for Death Education.