Honesty In Conversation

Lung cancer is not quite unique in the way that people dance around what they are feeling in conversation, but it is a prime example of a topic in which platitudes often far outnumber sincere or truthful expression. Far beyond mere clichés, the language reserved for patients and their partners, and too often for the surviving family members after a patient dies, reflects a means of appearing to be connected while actually creating a distinct emotional distance.

Unknowingly relying on emotional dishonesty

I have a friend whose child died of a rare pediatric brain tumor some years back and he wrote eloquently on the anniversary of that occasion about how tired he was of the disingenuous sentiment people tended to spew forth with their optimistic verbiage and enlightened sentimentality, and of the false equivalencies that they create about difficulties in their own lives. In his anger, he called it something a bit more blunt and appropriately coarse, but the meaning was ostensibly the same. I am just going to call it emotionally dishonest.

Because people are scared. They are scared it could happen to their children. They are scared it could happen to them. They are just scared. And so they fill their heads with easy nonsense to make themselves feel better while believing -- because they have to believe this -- that they are "saying the right thing" and that it will make everything better for the other person. And then they do not have to feel guilty about not saying anything while keeping themselves safely distant from that thing that scares them.

The danger hidden in our language

Of course, there are people who simply are confused about what to say because they do not want to offend anyone, or they are unable to process the emotional complexity, or maybe they just think that is what they are supposed to do, for propriety. Society has trained us this way, it seems. And that is an easy excuse to say the same things again and again. You've got this. You're strong. You're a warrior. But all of those things also say something very important: you are on your own and I do not need to be there to catch your fall.

All of those statements that we hear on repeat are lies of convenience. Some of them may come from a genuinely good place, and maybe they are meant to be encouraging instead of distancing, but they are still lies. And worse than that, many of those statements blame the victim, too. What if I fail? What if I'm not strong enough? What if I fight and fight but still I die? It is all my fault. I did not have this. I was not a warrior. I was not strong. I lost the battle, I gave in, this was all my fault.

Looking through the patient's eyes

I love that you think I am so tough and inspirational and that I actually have my act together; that does make me feel good. On one level. But it is a superficial level. It does not feed the proverbial soul.

Think about how you would feel in the patient's shoes. Think about if it was your child or your spouse or your best friend. Would you want to be told to be strong, that everything happened for a reason, that this was an opportunity to grow, or that, silly you, you are going to be all right? Or, as Patton Oswalt states in Annihilation, his 2017 video about coping with his wife's death, "It's all chaos, it's all random, and it's horrifying. If you want to reduce the horror and reduce the chaos, be kind." But do not repeat convenient lies.

Searching for honesty and understanding

The end of a "cancer journey" can be horrific, just as the journey itself often is. Things do not get better for those left behind, they simply change. To suggest that lives improve as the result of a tragic loss is to suggest that the loss was a good thing. Sure, people move on -- we are resilient. We are adaptive. We find new purpose if we can and we create meaning for ourselves when we need to. But in our hearts, we crave honesty and understanding. We want to know that you know. And we want to believe, to truly believe, that if we do stumble and fall, we will find your hands there at the ready.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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