[cancer] More on how to talk to someone in my position

Yesterday, I posted about how to talk to someone in my position [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. The comments were informative and in some cases gratifying. My thanks to everyone who was moved to speak up.

To be clear, I was elucidating from my perspective and personal experience. Others may feel differently, depending on their emotional terrain, privacy boundaries and so forth.

As someone pointed out in comments, the list I put forward applies to almost any form of active, supportive listening. However, I want to highlight a difference between interpersonal communication in general and talking with the seriously ill in specific. Many of the points I was touching on — for example, minimizing and comparing — crop up because we as a culture do a very poor job of talking to ourselves and one another about death. (I’m being US-centric here, so my apologies to my international readers.) We are not at all trained or socialized for that challenge.

None of the conversational tics I wrote about yesterday arise from bad faith. People minimize out of a sense of their own fears of mortality. Problem-solving mode arises from a deep and genuine desire to help. It’s hard to face death, especially when it comes in some context other than a (hopefully) peaceful ending to a long and happy life well-lived. I’m 48, about to be 49, and I probably won’t see 50. This is middle age. And not very far into middle age by twenty-first century standards. Anyone interacting with me is readily struck with the notion that this could be them.

Cancer being what it is, this could be you.

That’s part of why I keep talking about this so much. I am learning how to die. I am trying to help the people around me learn how to die. My family, friends, loved ones, and care givers need to know what I want and need and wish for. And in that process, as I can help you reading this blog understand a little more, well, then I’ve defied cancer once again by leaving the world a slightly better place than I found it.

A couple of folks asked versions of a good question yesterday:

What sort of greeting do you recommend? When I saw you at Norwescon, I thought it best not to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” but I couldn’t think of a better salutation. A simple “hi” didn’t seem sufficient and “I admire your blog posts” doesn’t seem like much of a greeting.

    — Gordon van Gelder

I wonder if, in your experience (and BONUS: as a writer), you have useful suggestions for public greetings as substitutes for “How are you?” Sometimes it feels like it just isn’t the “right time” to really listen to how someone is, yet that common greeting can open floodgates. I’ve been trying to switch over to “I am so glad to see you,” because wow – talk about habits that are hard to break!

    — Yvette Keller

I’m not sure how to answer this, because it varies even for me depending on my mood and frame of mind, and would vary a lot more between what I think and what others might want or need. There’s two issues embedded here.

One is that in this age of blogging, anyone who wants to know about me already knows all about me from what I say here. That sort of does away with the small talk aspect of greeting a friend. I’ll pass on by that for now, because while I find it to be an interesting social challenge, this information age etiquette quandry doesn’t have much directly to do with illness.

The other issue is the one that both Gordon and Yvette were specifically asking about: “What do I say to you when we meet up for the first time in a while?” I really like Yvette’s “I am so glad to see you.” That’s nice, to the point, and makes no assumptions to the good or ill about either my health or my state of mind. “Hello” works pretty well, too; or “Good to see you again.”

It’s not like I don’t know what’s going on with my health. And I’m perfectly aware that this is difficult even for folks with the best of intentions and no particular hang ups. Let alone anyone with triggery memories of the death of a loved one or personal illness.

I suppose the main thing I might hope for is honesty without too much social window dressing. And it never hurts my feelings to acknowledge that this really sucks. Personally I also appreciate low humor in poor taste, but I don’t recommend trying that approach on most people.

Because it does suck, and this is hard to talk about, and we all feel threatened by the specter of death. Believe me, I get it. Deep inside my tumor-riddled body there is still a healthy man screaming to get out. Too bad for him.

Speak honestly and appropriately to whatever context our relationship already has. That’s all I want. Acknowledge me, acknowledge my condition or not as you feel comfortable, and let the conversation flow. Whatever arises from that is good enough. I love my friends, and I know that my friends love me.

16 thoughts on “[cancer] More on how to talk to someone in my position

  1. IMHO of all you write above the most significant is

    “Speak honestly and appropriately to whatever context our relationship already has.”

    Common courtesy and common sense.

  2. Jeri says:

    Hi Jay –

    I’m a first time commenter; 7-year cancer survivor.

    My strongest memory of dealing with other people when I was going through treatment was that I did NOT want to discuss cancer. I lived, ate, breathed, read, studied, and thought about cancer and the possibility of dying non-stop. All I wanted from other people was a chance to forget, even for a short while, what consumed every other waking moment when I was alone.

    For me, and it sounds like you’re saying pretty much the same thing, only more eloquently, a simple “How are things going?” would give me the opening to lead the conversation to something, anything, other than cancer and treatments,and I was always grateful when people chirped on about the normal things we would have talked about before my cancer was found.

    And yes, I agree wholeheartedly about the lowbrow, tasteless humor as a coping mechanism, although I found my husband wasn’t quite as entertained with it as I was; so of course then I used it all the time for even more comedy relief.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that these posts are one of the best PSAs I’ve ever seen for folks who have to deal with anyone facing any type of life-threatening illness.

    1. Jay says:

      Thank you, Jeri. Good luck and good health to you.

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