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    Miss Conduct

    Difficult conversations

    Discussing health issues with family. Plus, struggling to find a name for a “celebration” and to shut down insults.

    Lucy Truman

    I have breast cancer that reappeared a year ago, leading to the usual round of emergency room visits, hospital stays, and surgeries. My stepson and his wife have wanted to know details, but if I tell them anything, they get tightlipped and start talking about their own (more minor) physical problems. If I say I’m doing well and don’t elaborate, they don’t seem to believe it (it’s obviously not the whole story) and look disgruntled. What can I say that will end this very unwanted interaction?

    S.J. / Brookline

    Sometimes people who love each other can’t talk constructively about particular topics, like football or attachment parenting or John Updike. The wise thing is to declare that topic off-limits. For whatever reason, you and your stepson and daughter-in-law can’t do “sick talk.” So don’t.

    But don’t stonewall them with a passive-aggressive “I’m fine!” either. Instead, the next time they ask, say: “If there are any major changes, I promise you’ll know about it. But, honestly, I’m tired of talking about the day-to-day hassles. So enough of the Cancer News Network — have you seen the return of Scandalyet?”

    Our boss of 38 years was suddenly laid off. She was given two hours to clean her office and was escorted out. The staff is in shock, crying and dazed. They are expressing grief and said they did not get to tell her goodbye. They have decided to have an off-site get-together for her. What would be the proper name of this event? It isn’t a party, as this is not a celebration.


    S.H. / Pontiac, Michigan

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    That is disgraceful and unforgivable and I am so sorry. You can call your event — well, you can just call it an event, if you want to, “an event to celebrate Jane Bosslady.” Or you can call it a gathering, or a get-together if it is more informal, or a social if that sounds natural to you (it sounds stilted to me, but it’s probably a regional thing).

    Or you could create your own nomenclature for the event: Call it Bosslady-palooza or The First Annual Conference for Jane Studies or a Story-Sharing or a Cocktail Kvetch. The advantage of this more idiosyncratic approach is that it would allow you, the hosts, to set a tone for the event, which is a good and important thing to do. Some of your guests will want to excoriate the injustice and strategize next steps, some will want to focus on how great Jane is and ignore the situation entirely, some will relentlessly happy-talk about Jane’s wonderful future. It’s on you to manage the emotional tenor of the event in a way that will best honor Ms. Bosslady and meet her present needs.

    Picking up my daughter at school, I happened to mention my niece to another mother who had daughters in both girls’ classes. She commenced to give me an earful, saying my niece seems “angry at the world” and adding to her daughter, “At least you only have to deal with her until 3 o’clock; these poor people have to deal with her all the time.” I changed the subject and excused myself. I know I won’t change this woman’s opinion and don’t care to try. But if this ever happens again, how can I let her know it is not OK to say horrible things to me about someone I love?

    M.P. / Everett

    Tell her, “It’s not OK to say horrible things to me about someone I love.”

    Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.


    NEED ADVICE ON A FAMILY CHALLENGE? Write to Miss Conduct at And get advice live during a chat with Robin Abrahams this Wednesday, December 19, from noon to 1 p.m.