Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Your Health

The etiquette of illness: Responding with compassion, saying the right thing


When your good friend tells you she has cancer, do you know what to say? When your co-worker tells you her child is seriously ill, what do you do? Of course, we want to be helpful and compassionate in those moments when we really feel incompetent. It can seem so easy to say or do the wrong thing. Words can indeed fail us. When my mother died recently, I experienced first-hand sometimes awkward comments from well-meaning people. Some provided comfort and some just made me feel worse.

It is a rare person who always knows exactly what to do and say in a difficult situation. Most of us feel uncomfortable, even anxious at such times. Or, if we happen to be the one who is suffering, it can be hard to accept help and allow ourselves to hear the kind intentions of our friends. Lucky for those of us who feel unsure, there are several excellent books on the shelves of Stanford Health Library to help us provide and accept comfort with grace.

“The Etiquette of Illness: What to Say When You Can’t Find the Right Words” (Bloomsbury, 2004) is such a book. Author Susan Halpern is a social worker and psychotherapist, as well as someone living with lymphoma. She has written a wise, sensitive guide to handling the gamut of confounding situations dealing with illness.

Etiquette, according to Halpern, is not a prescription for proper speech and behavior, rather it consists of “thoughtful and compassionate behaviors, influenced by the specifics of care and relationship.” Instead of telling us what to do in a given situation, she tells us personal stories that illustrate what works and what doesn’t. She suggests a range of helpful responses, so readers can decide for themselves how best to respond to a suffering friend in both word and deed.

The book is helpful to those grappling with difficult medical conditions themselves. She shows how to understand the compassion in their loved ones’ actions, even the clumsy ones. Halpern’s stories beautifully illustrate coping with chronic illness, doctor-patient communication and end-of-life concerns.

Cancer is often the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a daunting diagnosis. Cancer is scary and off-putting to many. Cancer survivor Rosanne Kalick has written a book, “Cancer Etiquette: What to Say, What to Do When Someone You Know or Love Has Cancer” (Lion Books, 2005), in which she shares her personal stories to help readers understand the experience of cancer, the pain, the fear and the desire to be known as more than a cancer patient.

This is a practical book, with many excellent suggestions full of common sense, simple yet powerful. She reminds us that our words have the power to hurt and to heal. Some of her provisos are: “It’s OK to say you don’t know what to say,” “If you make a mistake, apologize” and “Take your cues from the patient.”

In 1987, hospital chaplain Nina Herrmann Donnelley published “I Never Know What to Say: How to Help Your Family and Friends Cope with Tragedy” (Ballantine Books, 1987). This classic book is about more than illness – it is about helping others cope with all kinds of loss: death, job, divorce and more. While she writes profoundly about the process of dying and how to be present for a loved one as his or her life draws to a close, the focus of the book is on handling life after loss, on ways to support mourning and grieving. She even gives instructions on how write a meaningful sympathy note.

These books, along with other pertinent books and videos, are on the shelves of Stanford Health Library. The library’s Web site lists resources pertaining to cancer communication.

For more information, contact Stanford Health Library in person or via telephone or e-mail. Research assistance and customized information packets are available free of charge.

Stanford Health Library is free and open to the public. The library is now open in five locations: Stanford Shopping Center near Bloomingdale’s; on the third floor of Stanford Hospital; on the main level of Stanford’s Cancer Center; in South Palo Alto on the campus of the Taube Koret Center for Jewish Life at 3921 Fabian Way; and at the Ravenswood Family Health Center, 1807 Bay Road, East Palo Alto.

For more information, call 725-8400, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit healthlibrary.stanford.edu.

Nancy Dickenson is head librarian at Stanford Health Library.

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