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October 16, 2012 7:32 AM   Subscribe

When to tell other people when someone is very very ill?

There is someone I know who is very ill, let's call her G. G has cancer that is now in her liver. In my experience pulling out of that is very rare. She is currently doing some experimental treatments, as that is all that is left for her to do.

G is a hero of mine and many others for what she has done in our community. I've met her a couple of times, but we aren't particularly close.

My friend, L, told me about this, as she is now G's primary caregiver. L told me that G is not sharing the news, as partly she doesn't want to have to deal with other peoples' emotional responses.

I know that many many people in our community would want to know about this, so that they could reach out. I feel like I want to tell people, so that they send love G's way. Part of me says this is more important than G's stated wishes. But even writing that makes it seem wrong.

If I could share this with everyone anonymously I might, as I don't want to betray L's trust, and ideally everyone just reaches out to G without any reference to what's actually going on.

Do I have an obligation to respect a sick woman's desire for privacy, or is the obligation to tell people so they can send love her way before it gets too late?
posted by miles1972 to Human Relations (45 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
You have an obligation to respect a sick woman's desire for privacy.
posted by mochapickle at 7:34 AM on October 16, 2012 [91 favorites]


Nope, this one is pretty clear cut, you have an obligation to respect her privacy. Period.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:36 AM on October 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


It is your obligation to respect someone's dying wish, yes. My mother died of pancreatic cancer (which she told very few people she had, and the ones she did, only a few months before she died) and if she had found out someone was going to around telling people that she had cancer so they could "send love," she would've been mad as hell.
posted by griphus at 7:36 AM on October 16, 2012 [16 favorites]


Wow, no, don't tell anyone. That would be inappropriate, intrusive, and downright mean to G. This is so incredibly not your information to share that I'm boggled that you would consider it.
posted by brainmouse at 7:37 AM on October 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


If I were dying, I wouldn't want a lot of strangers and vague acquaintances swamping me with well-meant visits and messages. Her family ought to (and probably do) know, her close friends ought to (and probably do) know, but this wider "community" (?) doesn't need to know unless she says it's time to spread the news.
posted by pracowity at 7:37 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Do I have an obligation to respect a sick woman's desire for privacy, or is the obligation to tell people so they can send love her way before it gets too late?

Yes, you do. It is really not your place to tell people. It would be callous and rude to divulge the news, do not, do not, - DO NOT - do it.
posted by lydhre at 7:38 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Definitely help cover for her. Make vague-but-plausible excuses for any irregularities in her behavior, and if absolutely pinned-to-the-wall about it by some rude asshole, just say "it's not my story to tell, and I'd prefer if you didn't keep bothering me about it."
posted by Scientist at 7:39 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


She may well want to be left alone to live what time she has out, without being besieged by people "sending their love her way".
posted by thelonius at 7:40 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I know it's hard to let someone go without community recognition. And it's hard to have this secret! And it's hard to know that when G is gone, other people will wish that they had a chance to say goodbye and share their love and admiration for her. Those are all real feelings that you really have - and it makes sense to wish, for all kinds of reasons, that you could share what you know and that G was able to receive everyone's love and tribute.

And I know myself that it's different when it's someone who is an important part of a community - even when you're not "close" to them, they may have had a big effect on your life. That's something that folks who aren't part of a large close community (a union, church, cultural or activist community, usually) don't always get - that "private life" is a little different in those situations.

The thing is, G feels like she can't deal with all that stuff now, for whatever reason, and that's sad but that's the way it is. That's a real source of regret - not getting a chance to say goodbye and acknowledge all that stuff is sad. It's not just something where you are being selfish or intrusive to want to.

Is there someone besides L you can talk to about this? It seems like it would be very hard to have this secret and all these feelings.
posted by Frowner at 7:40 AM on October 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


She explicitly wants to avoid "dealing with emotional responses", and you wonder whether other people ought to have the opportunity to send emotional responses anyway? NO.

Someone I knew recently died in similar circumstances, and I noticed that after he died, lots of people spontaneously rocked up and started talking to him on his Facebook. So I think all those people you have in mind will have an adequate opportunity to vent their emotional responses if (or when) she passes on, without the need to go against the explicit wishes of someone who's (possibly) dying.

I suspect that part of the reason behind the request for privacy is precisely that people who hear this kind of news like to make things all about themselves and their feelings, at the expense of the feelings of the sick person. But really this is not about you, and it is not about all those other community members, it's about this one lady and her close friends and family. Leave them be.
posted by emilyw at 7:43 AM on October 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


Wow, no way. This is something you would do to an enemy, not someone you admire and respect. It would be deeply disrespectful and potentially very upsetting to her in the final days of her life.
posted by alms at 7:43 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Have you ever seen someone die of cancer? Near the end? They do not share your priorities about other people's needs to express their feelings, I assure you.
posted by thelonius at 7:45 AM on October 16, 2012 [13 favorites]


Under no circumstances may you tell. Telling would not be the loving thing to do. It would be a massive betrayal of G (and of L, who probably shouldn't have told you in the first place). You feel bad having to keep this secret, I understand. But that doesn't make it okay for you to assuage your bad feelings by placing a huge burden onto a sick woman. Just stop now, and forget you ever heard anything about this.
posted by decathecting at 7:47 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Agree with all comments so far. G has chosed this way. Respect that.

Want to send love? I would suggest: Help organize a event after the fact. Invite her friends, relatives, neighbors and acquaintances to remember G. Spread G:s love.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 7:49 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Do not go against G's wishes. Let her have this little bit of control over her own life and how it ends. People can share their love and grief after she dies.
posted by Area Man at 7:52 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Just to be clear - both L and I have taken care of loved ones who have died of cancer in the past couple years. Believe me, I know how it is and how to keep secrets. And this is also why L and I were able to talk to each other about it.
posted by miles1972 at 7:52 AM on October 16, 2012


Part of me says this is more important than G's stated wishes. But even writing that makes it seem wrong.

You've answered your own question by pointing out that one of the two possible approaches is wrong. By process of elimination, the other one is right.

If I could share this with everyone anonymously I might, as I don't want to betray L's trust,

What? How would being anonymous prevent it from being a betrayal of her trust? The only purpose anonymity would serve would be to protect yourself. That wouldn't be doing her any favors.
posted by John Cohen at 7:54 AM on October 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


DO NOT DO THIS. Period. Your good intentions do not override a patient's right to the (legally protected) privacy of her health information. Also, it would be really disrespectful. I cannot state this emphatically enough. Just don't.
posted by anonnymoose at 8:01 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Your question brought to mind Frank Rich's article about his reaction and those of other friends of Nora Ephron who died a few months ago. She told very few people about her impending death. Yes, some of those friends were upset about not having a chance to say goodbye. But she knew that their last "normal" dinners, outings, and celebrations were the kinds of goodbyes she wanted to have--beautiful times with old friends as in the past--no clouds overhead to spoil the fun. These goodbyes were about her, as they should have been. Funeral and memorial services are the place to say goodbye for oneself.

Let this go.
posted by Elsie at 8:05 AM on October 16, 2012 [34 favorites]


Just to be clear - both L and I have taken care of loved ones who have died of cancer in the past couple years. Believe me, I know how it is and how to keep secrets. And this is also why L and I were able to talk to each other about it.

You know, on reading this together with your initial question, I wonder whether all this isn't more about you being burdened by your own feelings and needing a place to put them. It must be difficult to know that G is in this situation when you've also cared for someone else who has died of cancer. It must be difficult for L! This whole thing must just suck mightily!

Can you talk to a therapist for a couple of sessions? Or do some regular, in-depth writing?

Is there something you can do for G via L, like cooking meals, running errands or sending something that would be appreciated (DVDs? Whatever G is still able to experience) or doing something to support L, if L needs meals or errands run? Is there a way that you can feel like you're doing something to acknowledge G's illness and death and to recognize what G has meant to you, even though her condition is something that she wants to keep private?
posted by Frowner at 8:09 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm going to respond to your title --

The most loving thing to do for G is to respect what she has said SHE wants. You have been caring for her during her illness, but she is the one EXPERIENCING the illness, and has a much better awareness of what her feelings are about it and what she is capable of handling than you do.

She has expressed a wish to you and the most loving thing you can do for her is to give her what she has wished for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on October 16, 2012


Do I have an obligation to respect a sick woman's desire for privacy, or is the obligation to tell people so they can send love her way before it gets too late?

I think this formulation makes it really clear. One of these options is for the benefit of G, it's what she has decided would make her happiest. The other option is for the benefit of these other people, so that they can feel like they said what they wanted to say before it was too late, didn't leave with any regrets, etc - in other words, what would make them happiest.

ideally everyone just reaches out to G without any reference to what's actually going on.


There is absolutely no way that this will happen, so please stop imagining that it will. There are going to be people who are so stricken that they will try their best to put on a happy face and just won't be able to. There will be people who will believe it's in G's best interest to show her how upset they are, so she can see how much they care. There will be drama king and queens who will wail and beat their breasts and make it all about themselves, seeing an opportunity for spectacle. There will be people who will hear second or thirdhand and have no idea she didn't want everyone to know. There will be people who are just clueless. And just in general overall, everyone will probably act, at the very least, concerned, and it sounds like she wants to spend her last time here being treated normally, feeling that last bit of normalcy in life, without everyone acting special towards her.
posted by cairdeas at 8:14 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I agree with everyone BUT, I would say if you are close to G it might be worth talking to her respectfully yourself. Not to try to sway her but just to assess if you have understood her wishes clearly. For example, she might be okay with some people knowing but not others, she might be okay with people knowing, as long as you are going to run interference and she's not going to have to visit with a bunch of weepers. Or she might really prefer not to tell people.

My only point here at all is that being a good friend means listening, so while L is doing a great job as caretaker, you could also listen to G and make sure you're understanding her intent.
posted by dadici at 8:17 AM on October 16, 2012


If I could share this with everyone anonymously I might, as I don't want to betray L's trust

What makes you think doing this anonymously wouldn't betray her trust?

A betrayal is still a betrayal even if you don't get caught at it.
posted by ook at 8:19 AM on October 16, 2012 [21 favorites]


Have you considered that an influx of well wishers and sad friends might harm G more than doing things the way she needs to? She needs to focus on healing and sudden mass amounts of people coming in to effectively mourn her while she's alive will interfere with that process in many ways. This is none of your business, even if the lady is a hero to you.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:21 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Whoops, I see from a closer re-read that you aren't close with G. I also had another thought, as I so often do after I hit the final publish button.

You say that G has done a lot for your community. You might ask L if G would have the energy for a tribute. One that doesn't reference her being sick at all. If she doesn't have the energy for an actual event you could still contact people in the community and mention that you've been so moved by G's contributions through the years that you were putting together a memory book in celebration of "make something up" (her birthday, the 20th anniversary of anything plausible, for Christmas)

You could ask people to contribute pictures and stories and organize it into a lovely tribute to G. She would get to see how people care, they would get a chance to express what they think of her contributions, no one goes all weeping wall on a sick woman who doesn't want to deal with it.
posted by dadici at 8:21 AM on October 16, 2012


Part of me says this is more important than G's stated wishes.

Even considered without context, this just sounds cruel.
posted by scratch at 8:40 AM on October 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


She's dying. It's not her job to make other people feel better. She's told the people she wants to tell which didn't include you.

It sounds as though you're making her death All About You. You know that people want to know. You feel like telling. You think telling is more important the a dying woman's privacy....

Don't tell anyone. Forget you know.
posted by 26.2 at 8:50 AM on October 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


as partly she doesn't want to have to deal with other peoples' emotional responses

She's confronting her own mortality and wants to do so without the burden of taking on other people's sadness about her impending death. Let her!

She is valued, admired, and loved by her community for the work she's done, right? So, many people have already expressed to her that she means a lot to them. And those who haven't... well, that's a choice they've made. We all know that our time with any given person is limited--we may choose to ignore, or even deny this reality, but we know it. Anyone who, at the time of G's death, feels sad that he didn't express his appreciation of her work to her while she was living will simply need to find a way to integrate that into the rest of his life--mourn G's death and regret his choice of not telling her, decide to tell the other people in his life who matter to him that they matter to him.

G does not owe the information about her cancer to anyone. And you would be seriously betraying a dying woman whom you say you admire and care about if you disclosed this information in any way.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:50 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


With the vote running 27-0, presumably you've been convinced already. But so clear is the issue and so strong the feeling it provokes that I have to make it 28.

Please, please respect her wishes.
posted by Egg Shen at 8:51 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


You've only met this woman a couple of times! How she chooses to live and die is not your concern.
posted by mareli at 8:55 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Do I have an obligation to respect a sick woman's desire for privacy

Dude. Read that sentence over. Of course you do.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:59 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Since you note that you and G aren't close, the fact that you found out via your mutual friend L is worrisome, since it speaks to L's own betrayal of G's trust, and the quandary you now find yourself in is pretty much the textbook example of why G doesn't want the news of her illness to be made public.
posted by evoque at 9:04 AM on October 16, 2012 [15 favorites]


If L told you chances are she'll tell other people, too. Word is going to get out without you being the one violating G's privacy.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:05 AM on October 16, 2012


Just to be clear - both L and I have taken care of loved ones who have died of cancer in the past couple years.

I know I'm taking that somewhat out of context, but please know that the tone you've taken in this question/thread strongly suggests to me that you think you know better than G how she should handle her illness and, more importantly, her life during a crucial stage of it. And this is somebody that, by to your own acknowledgement, you barely know. You come across not at somebody with G's wellbeing in mind, and the bit about your perceived "obligation" to your "community" strikes me as disingenuous—you seem to be looking for a way to make G's condition about you, which, if the case, would be both mind-bogglingly selfish and frankly cruel.

Now, I don't know if any of that actually is the case. I certainly prefer to think that it's not, but that is how you've come across to me here, and I only mention it (sincerely) because there's a real chance that G will understand your motivations similarly. Please keep quiet.
posted by wreckingball at 9:14 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


as partly she doesn't want to have to deal with other peoples' emotional responses

You seem (in your question, at least) to gloss over this a bit, but I cannot begin to underscore how important this is.

G has made her own choice, on her own terms, of how she would like to face her death. She knows best of all what she needs (and doesn't need) right now -- she certainly knows far better than someone who only met her a few times. You might feel you would make a different choice, which is legitimate for you but is not actually relevant here. I am urging you in the strongest possible terms not to sabotage this woman's final act of free will. If you truly respect what she has done with her life, you need to respect how she faces her death.
posted by scody at 9:16 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


So I think the stated question has been pretty well covered. What I see, though, is that you are looking for a way to process this for yourself, and perhaps also process the grief you are feeling from your previous experience caring for someone dying of cancer.

There are people who specialize in grief counseling. I'd encourage you to seek one out, if you do not have regular access to therapy. It is not G's job to help everyone in the community process their emotions, but it would be good for you to have someone you can open up to confidentially.

I recently learned that a dear friend has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and an hour with my therapist was enormously helpful to me. Sadness is how we metabolize loss, she told me, and it is an important process.

Find someone to talk to about this on a confidential basis.
posted by ambrosia at 9:20 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The corpse in the library has it. L has already violated the dying woman's stated right to privacy by telling the letter writer. She shouldn't have done that--though one imagines she did so for exactly the same reason that the letter writer wants to tell the news.

L shouldn't have done what she did. She shouldn't have violated the dying woman's wish, and she shouldn't have burdened you with this secret. Don't make a bad situation even worse.

If you must talk about it, talk about it with someone who is professionally obligated to keep your confidence, like a therapist or doctor or clergy member. Don't gossip.
posted by Sublimity at 9:26 AM on October 16, 2012


Folks, thanks for all the responses.

Just to be clear. I never planned to tell anyone. The reason I asked the question was to confirm this was the right thing to do, and that I wasn't making some huge mistake.

(Recently other friends have had tributes and days named for them and all that before they died, which was where my thinking lay. I think it's a shame that we can't celebrate people as much when they are alive.)

But so that no-one gets worried about me (I have a therapist, etc) and I haven't shared this with anyone and will continue to respect G's wishes as I have been doing.
posted by miles1972 at 9:30 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


You are correct in thinking it would be absolutely wrong for you to breathe a word of this to anyone.

Even setting up a tribute - even if you don't explicitly mention the cancer, even though your heart is obviously in the right place - would very very very likely be inappropriate. For one thing, G is probably going to realize that at least part of the impetus for the event is the fact that she is dying, and for another thing, have you ever had to endure a situation where people are imposing their well-wishes, appreciation, support, etc. on you when all you want to do is focus on something else or keep to yourself? It's a horrible situation to be in - you can't turn down the outpouring without feeling like a jerk, so it becomes all about putting on a brave face to make those well-wishers feel like they're doing a good thing even if all you want is to be left alone.

Continue to respect G's wishes. That's really the only humane option here.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:49 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


When someone is that ill, the mental and emotional energy it takes to deal with others' reaction to it is immense.

I remember my friend that died of cancer a decade ago talking about how very difficult it was to deal with people's reactions to the news of his illness. He was extremely well known nationwide in his field and had tons of acquaintances, friends and loved ones. I was also the one tasked with going through all the cards and letters sent to him and the family during his illness (the widow had me do this after he died to harvest all the names and addresses. There were a ton of them.)

Let's just say that experience helps me understand why your friend doesn't want a ton of people knowing. It makes sense. Although I also understand that it is harder for the people that love her, at this point HER WISHES OUTRANK THEM by a million per cent.

Don't spill.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:59 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think it's a shame that we can't celebrate people as much when they are alive.

To be a shameless cheese-monger for a moment: this is a worthy sentiment - so get on it! While you are continuing to respect G's wishes to be left alone, maybe it would help to redirect some of your energies into celebrating those people in your life who would appreciate it right now. Send a hand-written letter to another hero of yours to let them know their efforts are appreciated. Write positive reviews for stores and employees who have treated you especially well - or better yet, send a note to those employees' manager. Send a silly "just because" card to a friend because none of us get enough fun mail anymore.

It doesn't need to be a tribute day, and you don't have to wait until someone is dying. Everyone could stand to be celebrated a little more often in their day-to-day life.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:07 AM on October 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


You might want to check out So Much For That by Lionel Shriver to get the other side of the story.
posted by jaguar at 10:47 AM on October 16, 2012


Of course, you can't tell anyone. But let me try to address what I think is kind of your real unstated concern: The tension between her right to privacy as an individual and her obligation to the community members who are, like it or not, invested in her in some way, even if not personally close, because she has chosen to let herself become important to them.

Most people don't have a publicist or similar to turn to for figuring out questions about how to effectively balance the needs and concerns of all parties in a situation like this. It is possible she is an introvert (or whatever) and just doesn't want anyone to know. Period. It is also possible she feels conflicted, understands why others would want to know but just doesn't know how else to cope.

If the latter is true, the right book or magazine article, assuming such exists, might change her tactic somewhat. If you found such, you might be able to give it to L and ask L to pass it on, leaving your name out of it. It is a long shot, but I think that is the limit of what you can reasonably do to address the underlying situational conflict. Otherwise make your peace with erring on the side of her right as an individual and not on the side of her obligations to other community members as a semi-public figure.

(And you would need to do this for her personal benefit, just in case she would be happy to put such knowledge to use, not as a manipulative tactic to encourage her to divulge the info because you think others have some right to know. If you found such a book and if L was willing to pass it on, it should be given in the spirit of "Thought you might like some reading material to help you pass the time" not "You need to learn to manage your public image better, never mind that you can't afford a publicist".)

I didn't go looking for such a book when I was in G's shoes but I found by happenstance that some approaches worked better than others. I am very sympathetic to her choice to keep mum about it. Once it turns into a circus, it's crazy hard to put a stop to it and some people just don't know how, so it never stops being crazy. Being really ill is a terrible time to have to cope with something like that.
posted by Michele in California at 2:01 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


If, as you say, she is important in some community of which you are a part, and if that community has a regular publication or online presence, you might be the one to make sure that an accurate and representative obituary gets out to the community when the time comes.
posted by pracowity at 6:29 AM on November 5, 2012


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