While I'm away, readers give the advice.
On ways to respond to a friend's serious illness:
On two occasions, I have had friends with extended treatments for illnesses. Neither of them could be around people because of immunity issues, and the treatments were exhausting.
In addition to occasional calls to find out how they were doing, I sent cards. But the cards were never "get well" or "thinking of you." I sent graduation cards, new baby cards, retirement cards, bar mitzvah cards, bon voyage cards, whatever odd card I could find. The result was the friends knew I was thinking of them and had a little laugh at the content. They both expressed how good it was to have good thoughts sent without a reminder of their illness.
When I was in my last semester in college I became terribly ill and was eventually diagnosed with a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis. I lost a lot of "friends" who didn't know how to deal, and I didn't know how to tell them to help me. One friend, "Susie," helped me brush my teeth and eat, and held my hand while we walked when I feared I would fall.
Seven years later, on the day before Thanksgiving, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, and I was living eight hours away. I wrote her a card every week about the stupid things going on in my life, which is what she asked for, so the cards arrived every week on the day of her chemo treatment. When she switched to daily radiation, I switched to daily cards. I called once a week and checked in with her mom, who would tell me whether Susie felt well enough to talk. Today, Susie is cancer-free. And in 2011, I had a little girl and named her Susie, after the greatest woman I know.
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