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Jay Lake
Date: 2013-04-18 05:54
Subject: [cancer] More on how to talk to someone in my position
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, health, language, personal
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.

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User: madrobins
Date: 2013-04-18 13:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Would "Jay, you handsome devil!" be appropriate?

Seriously, this is one of the thorniest unthought questions, and I'm glad to see so many people asking. It's so easy to fall on your face trying to be tactful...
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User: e_bourne
Date: 2013-04-18 14:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Those are really great question(s). I like "I'm glad to see you."

I don't know about you Jay, but sometimes, when people ask/have asked how I am, in the ritualistic way we have, it leaves me tongue-tied. Because I don't believe you -really- want to know how I am. Unless you're a dear friend, it's a longer conversation than most people intend. And if you are a dear friend, you already know how I am.

The other thing about "How are you?" is that it puts pressure on the receiver to have to think about this, and digest whether or not you can answer it in a socially appropriate way. Way too often this past year, I've had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "Miserable and I wish I were dead. How 'bout you?" Fortunately, I have a higher intelligence that mostly keeps me socially appropriate. Or I don't go out to fight evil that day.

So I really like "I'm glad to see you." It fits and can be genuine, without putting the recipient into a tizzy of unanswerableness.
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User: kshandra
Date: 2013-04-18 15:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Fuck Cancer
I don't know about you Jay, but sometimes, when people ask/have asked how I am, in the ritualistic way we have, it leaves me tongue-tied. Because I don't believe you -really- want to know how I am.

*nods in strong agreement* When gridlore was Sick™ we both made it well-known in our social circle that if you asked him "How are you?" you were going to get a factual answer, whether you were prepared for it or not. (He also gave me permission, when someone would ask me how he was doing without asking how I was first, to say "Oh, he died on the way over; I stuffed him in the trunk. Wanna see?")
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Geri Sullivan: Peeps
User: gerisullivan
Date: 2013-04-23 05:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
(He also gave me permission, when someone would ask me how he was doing without asking how I was first, to say "Oh, he died on the way over; I stuffed him in the trunk. Wanna see?")

ROFL. kshandra & gridlore, that's nearly too perfect for words. Actually, it is too perfect for words. Color me in awe of both of you.
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User: keikaimalu
Date: 2013-04-18 16:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting -- I always default to "how are you," just automatically; the words escape my mouth before I realize they're going to. I was going to ask, "Is it really so bad to ask how you are?" but apparently, in some cases and for some people, it can be.

Speaking for myself, I generally don't mind "how are you" as an opening gambit; even when I've been in awful places, I can choose to say "fine," "okay," "hanging in there," "really shitty, actually," or even, "how are *you*?" if I want to deflect. I see the question as a form of reaching out, of connecting, even superficially.

Part of the difficulty of talking with someone who's going through something severe is that it's generally impossible to be entirely selfless; you can get self-conscious, nervous, awkward, embarrassed, scared, triggered, etc. And while it's not fair to put that on someone else, it is fair to take care of your own needs even when dealing with someone who's dealing with something horrific.

Generally, if I get an answer more honest than expected to "how are you?" it's welcome information, and I'm happy to switch gears to have the more serious talk. So I guess the caveat there is to be prepared for honesty, and if you're not, don't ask the question. If it has not already accidentally escaped your lips.

I guess I see "how are you?" as an invitation to either delve more deeply or brush past the current situation -- offering either option without assuming I know which the person I'm talking to prefers. It's interesting and useful to know that not everyone sees it that way.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-04-18 16:50 (UTC)
I'm certainly not offended by "How are you?" It's just kind of a loaded question these days...
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User: barbhendee2
Date: 2013-04-18 15:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Kitten and Chick
Oh gosh, Jay, the "greeting" question is important, and I think this is a very useful discussion.

With you . . . I don't think I ever say anything when we meet. Since I'm a small, blond woman, I usually just move under your arm and hug you . . . and you seem glad with that (smiles).
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User: asakiyume
Date: 2013-04-18 22:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have a question for *you* (as opposed to "for a person in your position"). You had said in an earlier post that you like low humor in poor taste, and you mentioned it here too, but I was wondering, is it okay coming from someone else? (I mean, as opposed to your making jokes, yourself.) And does it matter who it is? Would it be weird for you if an acquaintance were to joke about stuff? ... I guess I would wonder if I were taking liberties.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-04-18 22:26 (UTC)
Nah, it cracks me up when other people make fun of this. Hence the ham joke I mentioned on my blog the other day. ;)
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asakiyume: good time
User: asakiyume
Date: 2013-04-18 22:31 (UTC)
Subject: Re:
Keyword:good time
Well then, I shall subject you to merciless ribbing! Or at least, I shall feel free to.
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amphigori: bfly
User: amphigori
Date: 2013-04-19 00:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I love "It's great to see you," as an every day substitute for "How are you?" How are you always feels like it should come later, as part of a more meaningful discussion - not just a greeting.

My default for people I'm familiar with is "Hey hotstuff/handsome/beautiful..etc" with a grin and a hug.

It's not a reference to appearance really, more the acknowledgement of the beauty of their personality/friendship. I'm pretty sure I picked up the habit from an old colleague who used to address me as beautiful. I'm not stereotypically attractive, and always felt really jazzed up when he greeted me that way. Like a beautiful soul. And that's stuck with me. But now I'm liking 'It's great to see you,' even better.

You do make the world a better place! :D
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User: lazy_neutrino
Date: 2013-04-22 15:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just (another) quick thank you from me - your blog is by far the most helpful resource for me in talking to my father. Things that you post resonate and sometimes I can Google things you mention about your health so that when Dad talks I know a little about the words he is using (he doesn't Google, and doesn't always understand what the doctor says, so it can help if I recognise and pick up on some of the terms). We talk a lot about his death now. It's up there with the weather, and how his garden is doing. He needs to talk. We also, since he has a stoma bag (colonorectal cancer), seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time making jokes about excrement. [Never knew there were so many situations where 'No shit' is just the best response ever.] So thank you again, from the bottom of my heart, even though I also wish with all my heart that you didn't have to do this.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-04-22 15:29 (UTC)
I am glad to help. I hope your Dad does as well as he can under the circumstances. (I also have colorectal cancer as my primary, but retain enough of my colon to not require an ostomy bag.)
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