Sage Advice: Death Details Are Not a Competition

By Amy Dickinson | January 14th, 2020

Is he being too insensitive by not wanting to hear the details of death and dying?

Two mature women drinking tea and gossiping Image

Dear Amy: I will be turning 60 this year, and have noticed a sort of trend among many of my friends, acquaintances, and co-workers.

It seems like every time we get together, someone starts to talk about a loved one who is very ill, dying, or has died.

This often sets off a morbid competition of who can come up with the most heartbreaking – and graphic – details.

Obviously, we’re all at an age where we’ve experienced this type of loss. Both my parents and three of my siblings have passed on; but I would never reveal details of their deaths in a casual, mixed-company setting.

If we’re out having drinks before a concert, at a baby shower, or in the lunchroom at work … I’d rather not hear about a beloved aunt’s courageous but losing battle with cancer.

I’m not an unsympathetic person – quite the opposite. But there is a time and place to reveal this sort of personal information.

My question is: How would you handle this tricky social situation without coming across as a callous jerk?

My next question: Am I being a callous jerk?

– Buzz-killed in Boston

Dear Buzz-killed: I don’t know if I would call you a callous jerk, mainly because you got there before me. I exaggerate, but I do believe you sound … intolerant.

Perhaps you remember your own life about three decades ago, when your peers (and possibly you, also) were all talking about pregnancy, childbirth, the terrible twos, or your terrible bosses.

Yes, back in those days there were probably people who laid on too much graphic detail in recounting their childbirth stories. These might be the same people who give “too much detail” regarding their loved-ones’ illness or death stories.

However, what your cohorts are doing is not mindless, tactless talk. They are narrating their lives. What you describe as a “morbid competition” might otherwise be seen as “relating.”

You may declare that reporting on, recounting and remembering your loved ones is bad form; but (in my view) this is a matter of opinion. I agree that going on and on in a larger social setting and describing (private) medical details about a perfect stranger is not polite or pro-social behavior.

But – anyone who wants to talk about and/or remember a loved-one is welcome to sit by me (and that includes you).

If someone is engaged in a topic that makes you genuinely uncomfortable, you can gently try to change the subject by saying, “I’m so sorry to hear all of this. I seem to remember that you are planning a long trip this summer. Will you still be able to do that?” Or, you could pull the person off of sharing medical details by asking pointed questions about the subject’s life, such as where (and how) they lived, versus how they are dying.

Want to get even more life tips from Amy? Read more of her advice columns here!

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2020 by Amy Dickinson

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