What not to say to loved ones if they’re ill. What to forgive if it’s you who’s ill.

About fifteen years ago, some colleagues and I created a program called Facing the Mystery, for people with life-altering illnesses. The people who participated  were living with all kinds of illnesses, from cancer to MS to a rare bone disease. But they all had in common two complaints:

  1. You’re always waiting—for tests, for diagnoses, for results.
  2. Your friends sometimes abandon you. Often they don’t know how to treat you.

Here are some other things I’ve learned about being ill and being the friend of someone who’s ill.

If your loved one or friend is ill: The people in our program and others I know who have struggled with serious illnesses really dislike it when their friends, in innocence, say certain things that only made them feel worse. Just the other day, for example, a friend of mine, in remission from breast cancer, was explaining how irritating it was when, during the time she was going through treatment, people would whisper to her as if she were a child, asking her with exaggerated tenderness how she was doing. As if the very question would harm her. Your friends who are ill also really dislike being told they don’t look sick or hearing stories about other friends of yours who have died from what they have. Take a look at this Guardian article for other suggestions for how not to talk to sick friends.

If you’re ill. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that people who are ill don’t treat their well-meaning if occasionally clueless friends very compassionately. If you’re ill and one of your friends makes a remark that annoys you, keep this in mind: Some people are merely being polite and want to get away from the direness of your situation as fast as they can. But there are others who really love you. They recognize that you’re standing on a threshold between life and death that so far, fortunately, has eluded them, and they know they’re going to be miserable in conversing in that language of the threshold. They feel awkward. But, yes, they really care about you, so please don’t be harsh with them if they make a mistake.

What I’m reading

Rereading Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. Originally published in 1947, it is a novel in which alcoholism rules one man’s marriage, his career, his friendship—more specifically, it rules his moments. He argues with alcoholism, tries to convince himself he’s on top of it, falls prey to it. Lowry himself died of alcoholism. The brilliance of the book is in the prose, which is less about alcohol than an expression, line by line, of a mind entrapped by it. Makes me very glad to be a non-drinker for many years.

Savory Moment

The first snowdrops have arrived. Every year, every time I see them I am amazed by their stamina, their ability to hold out for another year of all kinds of weather, only to push through the dried leaves. When I first see them I conduct a ritual, begun in the spring of 1974, when I was living alone in an old stone cottage in England. I get down on my hands and knees and inhale their cool, sweet scent.

Other News

(If you read my Facebook post the other day, forgive me, this is a repeat!) My new book has come out as an audiobook! This would be good news for any author, but for me it has special meaning. From 1985 to about 2010, I abridged hundreds of audiobooks for top publishers. I abridged a book by the Dalai Lama while waiting in a super-secure car park at the Edinburgh airport a few days after the September 11 attacks. I abridged a bio of Andrew Jackson while sitting on the rim of a remote canyon in Utah, guiding a wilderness program. I abridged a book by Salman Rushdie who didn’t want to be abridged… and got a message from the producer that “Trebbe, Salman loved the abridgment!” I abridged about a dozen Star Wars books. I abridged good books, awful books, and lots of forgettable books. It was great work and my clients at the publishing houses were wonderful. So I am super thrilled to have an audiobook of my own!!