How to talk to friends about death and illness if you hate talking about it?
May 16, 2007 3:41 PM   Subscribe

I have a hard time talking to my friends about other people's terminal illnesses and/or deaths. I'd like to get better at this.

A close friend of the family who has had cancer for a long time took a turn for the worse and died in a very short timespan recently. Most of my friends didn't know her except anecdotally through me. I didn't (and don't) know how to tell them. At the end of last year my Mom had a very bad cancer scare which is now mostly dealt with for now, though it may recur. I find it almost impossible to talk about these things with people other than my family.

I have an okay time dealing with my own emotions on the subject. I am a pretty private person when faced with strong emotions, but I do okay. I talk to my family pretty well and have siblings I'm close to. However, I find it really difficult to talk to my friends -- both close friends and less close friends, as well as co-workers and colleagues -- about this sort of thing, especially while it's going on. On the other hand, I feel that I should say something because I am obviously not myself and people who care about me would want to know why. I feel like I need to change this also because telling people weeks later that someone close to me died last month seems... weird. When my Mom was going to the hospital and later in the hospital I didn't tell anyone until I had to (when I took time off of work). I didn't think that was optimal. I like my friends and they like me and I'd like to be able to talk to them about this sort of thing more easily.

I can't even explain this behavior except that I feel that there's never a right time to bring up really bad news and I'm carrying a fair amount of stress about it already and I'm not at my best. I feel like I'm dropping a bomb into a conversation, making people uncomfortable, making me uncomfortable (because often I don't want to talk about it, I just want to inform people and go back to my own thoughts on the subject and that seems rude if they have questions) and I definitely don't want sympathy or someone asking "How's your Mom?" every day [where the answer is "Still don't know, but thanks for bringing it up again, it makes me feel bad every single time!" or "You don't even know her." and that's just not appropriate]. Many of my friends are wonderful graceful people with this sort of thing, so it's not even about worrying about their reactions, it's my own weird very personal grief and anxiety process that I'd like to work on.

I feel that once I've told people that they become part of the whole "wait and see what happens" process and even though I know that's how illnesses and medical situations work out, I hate the whole process so much that I don't want anyone else to suffer through it with me. I don't want to "keep people in the loop" when I have a hard enough time being in the loop myself. That said, I need to get better at this and would appreciate advice, either general or specific, about how to both broach these difficult subjects seemingly out of the blue, and also try to politely indicate that while I appreciate people's concern I really prefer to deal with this sort of thing on my own without seeming ruder than I already feel.

So, if you've dealt with this sort of thing personally in a way that worked for you, or if you could recommend things to read or websites to look at to help me get better at this, I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
One thing I have done at times is to preface the information with something like, "Look, I know there's probably not a lot that you can say back to me about this," or "You don't really have to say anything," and then continue with "but I just wanted to let you know that XYZ happened and it really sucks. I don't really want to talk about it right now, but I just thought you should know."

And then the other person can say, "Oh, geez. Yeah. That's tough. Well, if you ever want to talk about it let me know."

In other words, I think you have to sort of acknowledge the fact that you're uncomfortable with it at the moment (and maybe forever) and that, yeah, maybe it's a little weird to talk about for whatever reason, but there you have it.

I'm talking mostly about closer friends here.

I hope this makes sense.
posted by veggieboy at 5:08 PM on May 16, 2007

I deal with these issues all the time, and I have for several years. My ex was a hospice volunteer, and later a Licensed Vocational Nurse working with homebound people. My current partner is in extremely poor health, and illness is a constant fact of life. Both our sets of parents are also elderly and in poor health. I structure my life around this, among other things.

Sometimes all of these issues affect how I feel and how I act, and sometimes they make demands on my time and curtail other commitments. So (in my long winded way) what I'm saying is that I have had to work through the point of whether and how to explain myself and what is going on.

That word -- whether -- is a big one. You wrote:

...I feel that I should say something because I am obviously not myself and people who care about me would want to know why.

You don't have to do that. You don't owe them an explanation, unless what you're dealing with impairs your friendship, your work, your relationship, or whatever. Even then, you don't have to volunteer information. You can wait until they ask. I approach it on a "need to know" basis: Does this person need to know about this issue now? Do I want or need their support? Do they need to share this burden?

In many cases, no, they don't. It's a social nicety, but it's up to you and entirely under your control how much you wish to reveal of whatever's on your mind.

I don't have recommended reading or web sites on this. And really, I think you know the words to use when you want to talk, since you say you can talk to your own family members about it and also handle your own emotions. Where you need help, I think, is in knowing where to draw the line with everyone else.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:08 PM on May 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I wish I had some good advice for you - I do not. But I will say that this is a problem for a LOT of people, including myself. Serious illness and death are the 800 pound purple elephants in the room that no one really wants to talk about.

I speak from unfortunate personal experience - I still haven't told a lot of people about a death in my immediate family. Like you, I don't want to make peope uncomfortable or have them pity me because a family member died.

Social norms dicate that polite people ask about other people, especially when they're not at their usual 100%. A potential response to those who continually seek status updates would be to say something like, "She's still chugging along [or some other nice metaphor] - I'll let you know when the sitaution changes". Observant people should take that as a subtle hint to stop asking you about it, and then, with the advice of those mefites less socially awkward than I, you can bring up future news in an equally appropriate fashion.
posted by at 5:10 PM on May 16, 2007

Why don't you just send a mass email out to all of the appropriate friends articulating your feelings exactly as you express them in the post above? You seem to know exactly how you feel about the subject, you're only difficulty is working these sentiments into a conversation with your friends. Why not just preempt the conversation with a well worded email. Sure, it wouldn't be the most graceful way to go about it, but it sounds like grace is an impossibility at this point.

That said, when I found out a few years ago that my father was leaving my mother and had filed for divorce, I told most of my friends individually almost immediately, as soon as I happened to run into him or her. There was nothing graceful about it, but it felt good to get it out there. If I had not told them, I would have found myself in your situation, that is, bothered by an emotionally painful family experience and wondering if my friends are picking up that there is something wrong. The sooner you tell them the better. If you don't want to talk about the situation much after you fill them in on it, tell them that too. After that, everyone will know what's going on and you won't have to worry about whether or not your friends think you are acting strangely. Tear the band aid off in one quick motion.
posted by waltzing astronomers at 5:13 PM on May 16, 2007

yeah, i second the waltzing astronomer. just as you encounter folks and they say, "hey, how are you?" you can just say, "oh, i've been kind of bummed these past couple of days. my friend has cancer and isn't doing well." and then, if you don't want to talk about it anymore, give them a chance to say, "oh, i'm so sorry" and then you say, "but let's not think about sad things right now. what's new with you?"

only the grossly socially incompetent would continue to pester you about your friend.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:05 PM on May 16, 2007

I handled this very issue with a mass email recently - I recommend it. My friends ended up feeling in-the-loop and I know now that they all have the full story and know better where I'm coming from these days.
posted by soplerfo at 7:53 PM on May 16, 2007

I completely understand this. My mother had cancer a few years ago, and I DID NOT want to talk about it, especially not with casual acquaintances. Basically, I dealt with it by telling people in as impersonal ways as possible and letting my close friends tell less close people as needed.

For friends, I found that mass email worked well because most people didn't respond unless they had something specific to say (and some of the specific stuff was, surprisingly, actually helpful). People are so accustomed these days to being CCed on a lot of things that they understand that they're not expected to respond, and most of them won't, especially if you include a line about preferring not to talk about it.

As for coworkers, what I did was tell my boss and one or two other people in the office. I figured he was probably the person most likely to notice any effect it was having on my work, so it was most important to keep him in the loop, and the others were closer friends. I didn't tell them not to tell anyone else, and everyone else sort of found out from them, but because I hadn't told them myself, no one really approached me about it personally except for the people I had actually told. If your office is one of those touchy-feely happy hour every night group-hug type places, this might not work, but it worked for me, and people stayed professional and I got to keep my privacy.
posted by decathecting at 8:03 PM on May 16, 2007

i think a lot of people have offered lots of good advice so far, and what's really important is to think what makes you most comfortable.

i'm currently in a similar situation, as i'm currently going through treatment for breast cancer. i made a point to tell my friends an family first individually, either by person or by phone, and then when my closest circle was informed did i send out a mass e-mail/blog about it. i was more worried about making people feel awkward, so i tried to keep it frank and brief. some people wanted to talk about it, and if i was in the mood i might, but most people just expressed some concern and left it at that. some people found out through word of mouth, but for the most part people found out through me in some way. there are still awkward times when people who haven't seen me in a while ask how i'm doing, if i've lost weight, why my hair is crazy, or try to make some cute remark about my fatigue. i know they're just being stupid, and it's annoying but they usually feel horrible when i tell them what's going on. if you go that route, there might be some additional akwardness.

i told my boss and supervisor right away, and just keep them in the loop.

there really isn't a right way to talk to people about stuff like this. i really think it's dependent on the people involved. most people care about you and will most likely want to support you as much as you'll allow. talking about is going to be awkward, but as thinkingwoman points out, you don't have to talk about it anymore than you want to. and if people pester you, tell them to take a hike.
posted by kendrak at 8:41 PM on May 16, 2007

N-thing the email strategy. My mom died a few months ago, and I had basically told no one except a few close friends about her illness. It was way too hard to deal with everyone one by one. It has a really hard email to write, but it gave people a comfortable asynchonous way to say "I'm sorry and happy to help however I can." Also, my dad's attitude was that I shouldn't feel obligated to respond to each person who wrote if I didn't want to and that people wouldn't feel slighted, given what was going on. That kind of avoids the awkward transition onto other topics that you mention. Later, they probably don't want to talk about it any more than you do, so it doesn't come up much.

I also had my advisor tell my professors and research group. That worked surprisingly well, too. Everyone expressed their condolances and we basically moved on.

The issue I've had is people who weren't close enough friends to get emails, but whom I haven't told yet. At some point it's going to come up and that's going to be weird, but I guess I'll deal.
posted by heresiarch at 9:12 PM on May 16, 2007

Another vote for the email. We did it when there was a tragedy in my wife's family recently and she couldn't handle telling the story two dozen times - it really cut down the stress on her. Don't be afraid to explicitly say that you don't want to talk about it if that's what you want. Most people don't really know what to do and will appreciate the clarity.
posted by teleskiving at 10:15 PM on May 16, 2007

I feel like I'm dropping a bomb into a conversation, making people uncomfortable, making me uncomfortable

This is because you are, and there really is no way around it as far as I can tell. The email idea will help with a lot of people, but there will always be those you bump into who wonder how is these days, and you will have to tell them what happened.

After you give them the news some of the time they will have kind thoughts that warm your heart, but mostly people say or ask things you would rather they didn't. If you wish to avoid this I would suggest a hasty change of topic. A comment on the weather will usually do it.

posted by yohko at 2:14 AM on May 18, 2007

Thanks very much to everyone. This was my question, but I didn't want to drop it on the front page with my name attached to it. You've all given me some good things to think about and time does make some of this stuff go more smoothly, I've found that waiting has helped some of the "I'm such an idiot that I can't manage this sort of thing" feeling to dissipate. I really appreciate your taking the time to respond.
posted by jessamyn at 6:36 AM on May 18, 2007

« Older How to get the most out of my keurig and the   |   What's the skinny on Gold Cards? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.