DEAR MISS MANNERS: While my mom is terminally ill and under home hospice care, my siblings and I have been having trouble coming up with appropriate responses to conventional inquiries.
Close friends know what is going on. We assume that a casual “How are you?” from a colleague or acquaintance is not an invitation to open the subject, so we have been responding with the conventional “fine.” The problem is with people who were between those categories: those who might have met our mom at some time, or who might casually ask, “How are your folks?”
We don’t want people to be blindsided when she dies. Yet answering “How’s your mom?” with ”She’s dying” seems a little harsh, and “She’s under hospice care” seems to give too much information.
Would “She’s gravely ill” be appropriate? We assume that we should then direct the conversation into neutral channels so we don’t overwhelm the questioner.
GENTLE READER: You are right, given the situation, not to treat this as the typical, “How are you doing?” Miss Manners does not want you to have to answer questions, six months later, about what you meant when you said your mother was “fine.”
The honest -- and proper -- response is, “Thank you for asking. She is not doing well.” Your demeanor -- including how quickly you change the subject -- will cue the astute listener not to ask the obvious follow-up question. Even the less-than-astute listener will grasp the implications of the follow-up answer: “She’s in hospice care.”