‘The Etiquette of Illness: What to say when you can’t find the words’ by Susan Halpern

The Etiquette of IllnessstarstarstarstarstarFinding the right words to say when we learn that someone has been diagnosed with a serious illness or is grieving the loss of a loved one, can feel so tricky and awkward. But even though we are afraid to say the wrong thing, it is more hurtful to do nothing at all. Susan Halpern has written a very helpful and compassionate little guide which can equip you for hard times. Drawing on years of experience, she strikes a good balance between practical suggestions and not being too precise or formulaic, since all people and relationships are unique and ‘one size’ does not fit all. She also brings the duel perspective of both the caregiver and the person being taken care of. The person who is living with illness, while grateful for the assistance and attention, may still need to establish boundaries around the help that is being offered.

Halpern has included lots of stories and examples of ways to handle visits, suggested wording for written cards, and even just tweaking common questions so that they better meet the needs of emotionally challenged people. Instead of “How are you?” it might be better to say “Do you mind if I ask you how you are doing?” Of course it’s not all about words and sometimes just crying with someone, holding their hand, or dropping off a meal is plenty. It is not a “how-to” book but helps you to think about what is most helpful or appropriate in your own caregiving,  and how to let loved ones know what you need if your are sick.  The context of your relationship and the situation will guide you as much as this book will, but Halpern’s wise and comforting handling of a difficult subject can empower those who feel inadequate in reaching out to others. There is even a chapter on how to communicate better with health care workers and how to talk to children about death and illness.

This is a book that I wish I’d had years ago.  When I think back to earlier experiences that I know I handled poorly, I regret some of the things I did and mostly many of the things I didn’t do or say because I was unsure and inexperienced. This would have been an outstanding reference. I learned about this book because it was mentioned in Will Schwalbe’s book The End of Your Life Book Club, also a great read.

One response to “‘The Etiquette of Illness: What to say when you can’t find the words’ by Susan Halpern

  1. Wilma Van Brummelen

    That book sounds soooo good! I will order it from the library and probably buy it! People mean well and want to show their good hearts, but “how” is the question! 🙂

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