How should I talk to a sick friend? Try these four Ls …

Letty Cottin Pogrebin book on how to visit a sick friendWhat should I do when I visit a sick friend?

That’s such a vital question for caregivers that even the Wall Street Journal tried to answer it this month. The all-business newspaper published some tips from a new book by Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Her newly released book is called How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. You may want to click on the book cover and visit the book’s Amazon page. It’s getting rave reviews.

But today, for readers at WeAreCaregivers, I’m going beyond the news about Pogrebin’s book. I’m sharing four of my own tips. Please, add a comment below with your advice.

Here’s the challenge faced by millions: We learn that someone is sick. We visit. Often, our conversation turns uncomfortable. But it doesn’t have to. I have been on both sides and honestly, it doesn’t feel good for anyone if we are clumsy. I have gotten so much better at this over the years by remembering:

Heather Jose’s Four Ls for Visiting a Sick Friend

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

It is easier to get things out in the open than to dance around what’s happening with your friend. You may be hesitant to ask for information, but I’ve found that it’s best to go there. Don’t avoid the subject. I broach the issue carefully but quickly. I often start with something along the lines of “I’m sorry” or “Tell me what’s happening.”

As with with many things in life, less is often more. Start by talking less and listening more. Stay in the moment with your friend and take what comes. When visiting a friend, your presence likely matters far more than anything you could say.

Really listen. Once a person begins to talk, I acknowledge that I hear. Sometimes we move so quickly in a visit that we barely know what is being said. But, believe me, the sick person needs to be heard and understood. It feels good to know that someone cares enough to listen—and is willing to acknowledge what is happening.

I try to maintain a balance. In most cases, I try to level out our conversation between talk about illness and talk about normal life. Going back and forth between the two helps keep a healthy perspective in a tough situation.

Now it’s your turn

What works for you when visiting a sick friend?
Or, when you’ve been sick: What do you wish people knew?

Looking for a speaker?

For many years, I’ve traveled nationwide giving talks and leading workshops for cancer thrivers, healthcare professionals and caregivers. Learn more about those opportunities by visiting my new Go Beyond Treatment website.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Paul Hile says

    As someone who has lived with those ill for the past 6 years, I couldn’t agree more with the four Ls. Especailly listening. Those that are sick need to be able to share their grief with others. I think this post hits the nail directly on the head!

  2. Geri Larkin says

    Yes, yes, to listening. In the years of hospice volunteering that I did some time ago, people were hungry for someone (sometimes anyone) who would simply listen. Thank you for this book.

    • Paul Hile says

      Geri– As it happens, I’ve returned to your book (Stumbling Towards Enlightenment) throughout the years to be reminded to listen, always listen. (I was one of the students in Ann Arbor who had the opportunity to meet you and listen to you speak several years back at First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor).

  3. Elaine Greenberg says

    Heather–though I have never written to you, I am a big fan of Read The Spirit, and have followed your writings. I am a 13 year ovarian cancer survivor as well as a professional singer. Have used my music and my longtime survivorship to work with other cancer patients/survivors. I liked what you wrote today–especially “listen”–however, you forgot the fifth L which to me is the most important one–LOVE—-lots of it, with big hugs.

  4. Benjamin Pratt says

    Heather, You have captured the posture of a visitor brilliantly. Listening with your ears and eyes and a minimal number of words offers the gift of presence to one who is sick. Presence offers the gift of hospitality. It is compassion without intrusion.