death

Maintaining privacy when people ask about a memorial object

Anonymous said to :

I have a rather specific social problem I was hoping you might help me with. One of my best friends committed suicide very recently, and I have a necklace with his name on it that I wear to remember him. Normally I wear it with the blank side facing out, but it does flip around, & people (who didn’t know him) have asked about it. I don’t want to outright lie, but this isn’t something a stranger needs to know.

Additional complication: this is still really raw, so sometimes the question hits wrong and I become visibly upset, which just makes the person more curious. How can I brush these well-intended remarks off as politely and quickly as I can, making it clear that I don’t want to talk about it?

realsocialskills said:

I wonder if it would work for you to say that it’s in memory of a friend without talking about the suicide?

Like, along these lines:

  • Them: That’s not your name, is it? Who is that?
  • You: Actually, it’s in memory of a close friend who died recently.

It might help to be explicit about how you want them to react. Most people are uncomfortable talking about death. Some people will be very worried about saying the wrong thing and will want to take cues from you.

If you want them to drop it, changing the subject helps. One way to change the subject is to talk about the reason you’re interacting with that person to begin with.

Eg: Say you’re at a conference.

  • Them: What does your necklace mean?
  • You: It’s kind of personal. It’s in memory of a friend who died recently. I’m trying to stay busy. I’m excited to be at this conference. What brings you here?

If that’s too much sharing, maybe you could say something like more vague like: “It’s a friendship necklace”, or “It’s to remember someone”, or “I’ve had that for a while”, “It’s in honor of someone”, and then follow it with an immediate subject change.

This sometimes takes a couple of repetitions of the subject change. Some people think that they’re supposed to find ways of getting you to talk about it, and some people are just nosey. If people are particularly persistent, you might need to say very bluntly that you don’t want to talk about it. (Some people might get annoyed at having their persistence rebuffed. If that happens, that’s their fault, not yours.)

Alternatively, what about making the necklace less visible? For instance, by wearing it under your clothes, or by putting your friend’s name in a locket instead of on the outside of a pendant? (I’m not assuming that this is a good idea — it may well not be; symbolism is complicated).

squidids:

realsocialskills:

People often say that when you’re comforting someone else, you shouldn’t mention your own similar experiences. I understand that making the conversation entirely about you is rude and imappropriate, but isn’t it ok to at least briefly say, “yeah I can relate” and then continue with “that sucks a lot” etc?
realsocialskills said:
 
Bringing in your own experiences can actually sometimes be a good thing. There’s a specific way of doing it that’s bad, but you are entirely correct that showing ways you can relate can sometimes be good.
 
I wrote a post a while back about listening to someone who is facing a bad situation that talks about good and bad ways to relate your own experiences.
 
And I want to add to that: You’re probably seeing a lot of people vent on the internet about thoughtless or otherwise bad things people said to them. That could make comforting someone who is struggling seem very intimidating; it could make it seem like you have to be sure you’re going to say the right thing before it’s ok to talk to them.
 
And it doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to be perfect to comfort someone. Sometimes, you’ll say the wrong thing. That’s ok. Everybody does, sometimes. It’s good to work on knowing what to say and how to say it, but be careful about worrying too much about that. You can really only get good at this through practice, and you can’t get practice by waiting until you’re absolutely sure you know the right thing to say before you offer anyone support.
 
Suffering can be very isolating, because people are often afraid of seeing people suffer in ways they can’t fix. Sometimes things aren’t ok, and aren’t likely to be ok any time soon, if ever. And if someone’s in that situation, chances are they’re surrounded by people who are trying to get them to feel better.
 
If you’re not trying to make them feel a different way, you’re willing to acknowledge that things are hard, you’re listening to them, and you’re treating them with respect, you’re probably doing fairly well. Even if you sometimes say the wrong thing.

squidids said:

Good: “I am sorry to hear about your grandmother. When my grandmother died, [blah blah blah].”

Bad: “I know how you feel about your grandmother. When my gerbil died, [blah blah blah.]”

Good again: “It’s okay that you’re still grieving about your grandmother. I still feel awful thinking about my gerbil that died, and losing a grandparent will naturally be even harder.”

Thoughts on aging, assisted living, and death

When people age, they often move to assisted living facilities, either by their own choice or in response to outside pressure. Often, these facilities present themselves as being basically just like living in your own apartment, except that they clean for you, provide meals, and offer enjoyable activities.

And, when people first move in, this is generally true. People who can do the activities of daily living without help retain control over their lives, can come and go as they please, and live very similarly to people who live in their own places. But as residents age, they loose physical and cognitive abilities, and often lose control over their lives. What once looked like an apartment can look like an institution really quickly when you start to need more help.

  
    
On TV, we never see aging or death depicted very accurately. People who die on TV don’t decline over time, they’re just there until they’re not, and sometimes they look perfectly healthy in a hospital bed before they aren’t there. And sometimes, not being there isn’t dying, sometimes it’s being put into a home.
        
Real death is not like that. Real death is not usually sudden. People who die of old age normally become disabled first. On TV, when you become disabled enough for it to matter, you disappear. In real life, you are still there, you are still a person, and you still care about your life. 
     
So, if you’re old enough to be considering moving into an assisted living facility, you’re old enough that you need to plan for what will happen as you become more disabled. Don’t assume that the people who run your residence will know what to do; you will be better off if you make the decisions rather than outsourcing them to other people.
  
On valuing your life:
If you are old, people might pressure you to refuse treatment for medical conditions you have so that you will die sooner. They might euphemistically call this dying naturally or not prolonging the dying process. But there’s nothing unnatural about using a feeding tube, treating an infection, or any number of other things people might try to talk you out of. Do not get all of your medical information from people who see the world this way. Medical decisions are yours to make, and make sure that the people advising you on your care believe that your life is worth living.
    
Pay attention to the disability community as well as the aging community. Some people feel like they would rather die than come to be impaired in a way they’re dreading. Hearing the voices of people who live with those impairments and value their lives will make it much, much easier for you to get past that fear.  Everything you face physically as you age is something that some disabled folks live with long-term. They know a lot about how to be disabled and still be free, self-respecting, and live. Disabled adults who live free lives and avoid nursing homes have had to gain a lot of skills that you are going to need. Not all of what they know has reached the aging community. Learn from both. 
   
In particular: There’s a lot of fear and misinformation about feeding tubes. When people ask you to fill out a form indicating which treatment you do and don’t want, feeding tubes are one of the first things they ask about. People often see eating with a feeding tube as something like being a zombie, being undead, and living an unacceptable life. But feeding tubes are really just a way to eat and stay alive if you can’t use your mouth to eat. Similarly, breathing support is just a way to breathe. It doesn’t make you a zombie. It lets you stay alive and gives you more time to live and love and care about things.
  
Questions to consider:
  • When I am no longer able to walk as far as I want to go, how will I get a good wheelchair and learn how to use it?
  • If I lose the ability to speak, how will I communicate? 
  • If I develop dementia, how will I communicate as I decline cognitively? What do I need to do now to make sure that if I develop dementia, I will still be treated like a person?
  • If I need assistance in the activities of daily living, will I still be able to decide how and when to do them, or will those decisions be governed by staff convenience?
  • If others decide that I am a fall risk, will I still be able to make my own decisions about when and how to get out of bed, and whether to use a bed alarm?
Just, generally speaking - your life does not end when you become disabled. It just changes. When you become disabled, your life will still be worth living, and you will still care what happens to you. Don’t let anyone talk you into devaluing it, and plan to keep your freedom.

What are the conventions for going to a funeral at a church or other holy place outside of your faith/atheism? Is there a polite way to refuse touch on these situations?
realsocialskills answered:
That depends on the nature of your faith. Different traditions have different attitudes towards going into places of worship associated with other religions. And ultimately, it’s a matter of what your perspective on these things is.
One approach is that going to a funeral doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with religion or your religious beliefs. It can be about supporting people who are going through the awful experience of losing someone they care about. That’s generally understood to be one reason people go to funerals. Going to a funeral is not taken as a sign that you believe in that faith, just that you care about the people.
Most, but not all, religions make it possible to be in the service without actively participating in affirmations of faith. Because most religions accept that people have a legitimate reason to be present other than being part of that faith. For some people, that makes it ok to be at funerals in houses of worship that have very different values than their own - because they aren’t affirming that faith by being there; just supporting people in their grief.

But it’s also ok if your faith or atheism means that you’re unable to be present during the rituals of another faith. For some people, that’s really important. (It’s also important not to be a jerk about it.) If you’re not able to be present at the funeral, there are other ways you can offer support. For instance, calling them a few days later, or coming by, and checking how they’re doing and whether they want to talk. In some ways that can be more helpful than the funeral because sometimes people can be very alone and isolated after the public ritual has ended.
In terms of polite ways to avoid touch, it depends on which religious group you are talking about. Sometimes it is possible and sometimes it is not. When it’s not, it’s ok if that means you need to avoid that kind of service and find out ways to support mourners.
There is a useful book called How to be a perfect stranger that gives a guide to what’s likely to happen and be expected at various places of worship. That might be helpful in navigating these things.

“What he would have wanted”

Talking about what someone would have wanted only makes sense if that person is dead.

If the person you’re talking about is still alive, talk about what they do want.

And assume that they want to live. Almost everyone does.

Even if they’re brain damaged, even if they’re in pain, even if they have dementia, even if they no longer recognize people.

They’re still a person. They’re still there. And they still want things.

So don’t ask what they would have wanted. Ask what they do want.