How to handle comments like "You look down..." or "Is everything ok?
January 9, 2012 1:18 PM   Subscribe

How to handle comments like "You look down..." or "Is everything ok?

My father in-law just got diagnosed with stage four lung cancer the week before Christmas. It is in his bones and extremely aggressive. He likely has less than 12 months to live.

My wife is in her chief year in surgery residency. This was a very exciting time for us until these terrible news. Now job searching, imagining life in another city, new house, (...) -- it all just adds to the stress level since now we are filled to the brim with stress about her father dying.

How can she handle people commenting on her outward appearance when everything isn't "ok." She is terribly sad. She can't unload on people when they tell her she looks down. "I am down. My dad is dying." It just doesn't cut it. She deals with patients all day long, but "fake it till you make it" wears out once patients are out of sight.

What can she say to them? How did you handle this situation when your parent died of a terminal disease?
posted by LeanGreen to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"I've got a lot going on but I don't want to talk about it. Thanks for your concern, though."
posted by royalsong at 1:22 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Thanks for your concern, my family is going through some things [+optionally: that are stressing me out a bit/difficult/tiring.]" Then, change the subject.

It's exhausting to fake it, and its also exhausting to constantly talk abou it. This toes the line between the two quite well. (Also, i'll bet your wife will have days when she doesn't feel like thinking about it at all, in which case "i'm a bit tired" or "really? i feel fine" are appropriate.)
posted by Kololo at 1:25 PM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: I think the standard advice is to answer briefly then redirect. "I'm dealing with some family health concerns. Now about your visit today..." or "Thank you for your concern, but I'd rather not talk about it. Now..."

The redirection is key.

For people I interact with every day (my dad has been having many health issues from April to now), I briefly let them know what's going on and they understand that if I look tired or down it's probably that.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:25 PM on January 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

When my mom was dying, I just said that I was stressed out or had a lot of family stuff going on. If pressed, I told them my mom was sick. If pressed further, I told them that she wouldn't be getting better. At that point even the nosiest people got the picture and just said "I'm sorry" and I immediately changed the subject.
posted by griphus at 1:26 PM on January 9, 2012

It's helpful to remember people are asking out of concern rather than "you look like shit!" I know when upset you can easily slide into taking it the 2nd way rather than the first.

I found thanking them sincerely actually improved my mood. Made me feel a lot more connected to people.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:27 PM on January 9, 2012

She can just tell people she's dealing with a lot right now and stressed. If they push for more, and she doesn't want to talk about her dad, telling them about the residency and the amount of work/responsibility/stress involved should be enough to satisfy their need to express concern without having to turn into a sob story.

When I found out about my dad's heart condition they origninally considered him terminal, because he's at extremely high risk of an aortic dissection (if it happens on the operating table they might be able to save him, otherwise he'll be dead before anyone knows something went wrong). While he was being considered for a valve transplant I was a wreck. When people asked questions I just bluntly said "My dad might be dying and I'm having trouble dealing with this but don't really want to talk about it right now" and that was enough.

as a side note, they rejected the idea of the transplant because he was in his mid 50's and they didn't think he had enough time left to justify the risk of the surgery. He's now in his 60's and riding his harley davidson all over hte country going to bike rallys. Every day there is still the risk that strenuous activity could be the end, but he chose to spend this time doing something he loves. He even found a girlfriend his age who goes with him everywhere (keeps track of his meds and makes him go home for doctors appointments).
posted by myShanon at 1:29 PM on January 9, 2012

My mom has ALS. As long as I have a few friends at work who know what's going on with her and ask me about her and to whom I can vent a little, I find it's a lot easier to "fake it til I make it" with everyone else at work.
posted by amro at 1:35 PM on January 9, 2012

Depending on who she's talking to, it might be useful to let them know something is up. Eg co-workers who she sees every day. I think "my dad is sick, Really Sick, and it's tough." Her interlocutor will say "what is it?" or just "I'm so sorry". She can say, "I don't really want to talk about it; just wanted to explain, that's what's going on." and they should move to "I'm sorry, let me know if there's anything I can do."
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and further to what LobsterMitten said: I did make sure to tell a few of my supervisors so that they are prepared for when I need time away from work and so (maybe) they are understanding when I'm a little less than focused on my work because of the situation with my mom.
posted by amro at 1:38 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In terms of patients asking, I'd say royalsong and Kololo are right on. Here in the American South, I also like to use, "oh, I'm gettin' by," with a little smile. Polite, noncommittal, change subject!

With her co-workers or friends, though, (if this is happening with them, too), would she be comfortable doing something like sending out a quick email? Basically, "hey guys, just so you know, we're dealing with some extended family health issues right now, and you may have noticed I'm feeling a bit down. I really appreciate your concern and care, but I'd prefer not to talk about it when we're together. Y'all are awesome, and thanks!" That way, they know that she may look "down" from time to time, but that they don't have to continue offering support.

I don't think it's gauche to do this over email; I actually think it's kind of a blessing to be able to do it like that. When my grandfather died under upsetting circumstances, I did the same thing with my (very understanding small business) boss and my close friends, because talking about it just made me turn into a sobbing mess, but there was clearly something bothering me. After that, I didn't have to rehash my feelings in my head every time I saw another person. Plus, if I needed to call out of work or wanted some time with a friend, they knew the extenuating circumstances already. Her workplace culture may make this a moot point, but now you have another suggestion to consider.

I'm really so sorry y'all are going through this. Sending good thoughts your way.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 1:40 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

When my mother's lung cancer was diagnosed I went through some of this, not exactly the same. I'm a super-private person with strangers and am very very uncomfortable having discussions about my feelings with people who I do not consider close friends. This was especially true because some people have exactly the wrong reaction and either get all up in my business or would tell me some cancer horror story thinking they were commiserating which would flip me out and ruin my already-not-great day. I got an awful lot of mileage out of working to forgive those people and just reciting my own etiquette mantra which is that those people are not me and they were trying to be helpful, even if they were failing. I told co-workers what was going on generally once and then didn't really bring it up again except to mention when I'd be seeing her or when it was affecting my work. If they brought it up again I wouldn't discuss it. YMMV but sometimes not discussing it is easier than saying you don't want to talk about it. I don't know why this is, but that was my experience.

So I'd usually do exactly the "answer and redirect" thing above and sometimes I wouldn't even get too into it. Suggestions.

"I have a lot of family stuff going on right now and it's been a busy time."
"Some stuff is keeping me busy at home and it's been very tiring."
"Thanks for your concern, I'm fine but I have a lot going on and I guess it shows."
"Sorry I guess I've got a lot on my mind."
"I have a family member with terminal cancer and there is a lot going on."

It's worth remembering that people's desire to connect and empathize is somewhat normal and so developing an ongoing strategy is likely to help your wife not just now but in the future. Somewhat bizarrely, my mom has outlived her original diagnosis but my father died unexpectedly in the meantime, so I've been learning a lot about interacting with other people surrounding health and bereavement topics lately. I wish you both the best in this tough time.
posted by jessamyn at 1:46 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm very sorry your wife is having to deal with this (and you).

I think in some cases, people can sometimes assume if someone isn't communicating with them like they normally do and are obviously struggling with something, then it's something THEY'VE done to upset that person - they will possibly think it's something they said to your wife that upset her, without thinking there may be more going on than they can see. I would nth the idea that it would be a good idea to let someone know - maybe a supervisor or line manager - and / or one or two very close colleagues if necessary, to allow for emergencies or to run interference if it's warranted. Otherwise, as above, a simple "There are some things going on at present that I'm having to deal with externally" is probably sufficient.

And it is tough losing a parent, but I found great kindness and understanding in the strangest corners.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 1:55 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of the suggestions seem brusque to me.

"Family health issues....[pause]", said with a slight groan of "you understand how that is", strikes me as the right note. And it has the advantage that anyone not really close would be quite happy with a subject change. Because it's not something non-close people ever want to get into. Yet you're not shutting them out with "I don't wish to talk about it". Nor are you chilling the conversation with Too Much Information about ghastly personal stuff.

The other alternative: smile though your heart is breaking. It's glib, a cliche, I know. And I could write twelve pages about how it's totally not. But one thing's for sure: how we act (even at the superficial level of gesture and expression) has the power to dramatically change how we think and feel.

So if she chooses to take this on as a practice (finding a real smile in spite of it all, not just a phony clenched one), then inquiries will seem less vexing and intrusive. Instead, they'll be helpful feedback to remind her she's forgotten the practice.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:01 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

When my father was dying of lung cancer if they asked me why I looked down I told them, then would redirect them to another topic of conversation. Most people have more social skills than I do and took the hint would say something like "I'm so sorry" and move on. I honestly found that so much easier than faking normalcy and to be honest I hate strong emotions and have a hard time handling them in other people but the little sea of silent support, caring and kind thoughts it built around me as a sort of protective bubble of people I dealt with everyday that knew what I was going through was probably the only nice thing to come out of the whole experience.
posted by wwax at 2:21 PM on January 9, 2012

"Oh, just a lot going on and a lot to do before I get to my afternoon coffee/lunch with my buddy/other pleasant sounding thing!"

Minimize the observation and end on a forward-looking thing, however minor - both for her own sake and to reassure the person expressing concern about her well-being (and that's what it is, really) that she doesn't need an ear to bend or a shoulder to cry on. And it's not a lie, just a reassuring deflection.
posted by phearlez at 2:47 PM on January 9, 2012

I'm very sorry your wife is having to deal with this (and you). Of course, this came out all wrong - I wanted to extend my condolences to both of you but I got it a bit wrong-sounding. Apologies
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 2:56 PM on January 9, 2012

"I've been real busy"
posted by rhizome at 3:38 PM on January 9, 2012

I agree with saying something vague and quickly redirecting.

The vagueness is key. Based on my experience, if you say what the specific health challenge is, you're likely to get either (1) "Oh, my whatever had that and he turned out fine, don't worry!" or (2) stories about their own loss / health problems, as if hearing about their suffering is going to make yours easier.
posted by ceiba at 3:46 PM on January 9, 2012

Sorry to hear about your situation. Been there, so I can sympathize. Lot of good advice thus far. Personally, I just pretended to be tired. Although that's kind of my catch-all excuse, as I have permanent dark circles under my eyes, so I can fake exhausted pretty easily. But "I'm exhausted" usually doesn't need a story behind it and can explain anything from a poor mood to wrinkled clothes. Although I don't know how that plays as a medical professional. I imagine doctors are always tired, but that's based on my imagination.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 8:30 PM on January 11, 2012

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