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Somebody I have a close but not entirely personal relationship with (think long time boss, landlord, doctor, etc.) was recently diagnosed with grade 3 brain cancer, ending their career. I sent them a Merry Christmas email, and due to lack of knowing what to say, I just wrote:

Merry Christmas, Jane Doe!

[funny comic]

Jason

What I want to know is, what polite opener/closer is appropriate? None of my standard (sincere) lines seem acceptable:

  • How are you? (I mean... their only honest response would be "I have cancer"...)
  • Hope you are well! (This seems cruel / thoughtless...)
  • Thinking of you! (Creepy in this context given this relationship?)
  • Wishing you the best! (The best what? Peaceful death? :( )

I just don't know what else I could've said. I wanted to say something more but I'm at a loss for words. The whole situation is very sad.

PS This is kind of unique to any non face-to-face communication, not just email.

closed as primarily opinion-based by sphennings, Ælis, Meg, avazula, Alina Cretu Dec 27 '18 at 13:07

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    This looks like a phrasing request to me. – sphennings Dec 26 '18 at 20:02
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    Maybe? To me it's more, how can I interact with another person sensitively, sans vocal tones and body language, without forcing them to reflect on their imminent death. Ymmv. – Jason C Dec 27 '18 at 4:44
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I don't know your relationship and communication style, but your email looks good to me. Having had a bit of flirtation with death myself, I didn't want people avoiding me because of awkwardness.

Your suggested lines are generally good. "How are you?" isn't intended to evoke an answer like "Dying of cancer, what do you think?" but "Having a good/bad day." "Hope you are well" is a little off-putting, but "Hope you are doing well" works, and Jane Doe will take it to mean that you want her to have a good day, as opposed to a bad one. "Thinking of you" is completely applicable. It's the sort of thing I wanted. It isn't creepy to think about someone, whether healthy or dying. "Wishing you the best" is good, even if the best really isn't very good. Presumably, you want Jane Doe to have a lot of good days and a comfortable death.

Even clumsy communication is better than being abandoned. You want to avoid anything like "Get well soon!" or "What do you expect to be doing in ten years?" but even those are better than nothing.

If you'd normally see this person now and then, and the cancer is making that difficult, try asking about visiting. Always ask first, and don't take "no" or "not today" personally. Be prepared to cut your visit short. Don't think you have to talk about anything medical. Jane Doe is not her cancer (any more than I was some malfunctioning brain arteries, which now seem to have sorted themselves out).

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    I like and appreciate all these answers but I think this one resonates with me the most and gives me a better perspective, and is especially meaningful for this situation, despite me not giving a lot of specifics, and generally puts me at ease. Thank you. – Jason C Dec 27 '18 at 4:48
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"How are you?" or "How are you today?"

is not as bad as you think. Yes, Jane has cancer, but that does not define her whole being now. She has good days and bad days, like before, they are just determined by different factors now.

If she does have a bad day, she can always choose to read it as an empty phrase and reply with an equally empty phrase.

For an ending, you could concentrate on the small things as well.

"Wishing you the best." or "Wishing you a good day"

is acceptable. A little more personal would be

"Hope I made your day a little brighter."

If she is a very religious person, she might feel comforted by

"I include you in my prayers."

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Hello

'Hello' is an excellent all purpose greeting. It is completely meaningless except for its function as a greeting, which makes it a little bland but also means that it is extremely unlikely that it will draw a negative reaction from the recipient.

Sincerely,

Jason C

'Sincerely' is an old classic sign off for letters, and it works well here because it doesn't contain any optimism or well wishing that the receiver might feel is misplaced. It does nothing to remind the receiver of their unfortunate state of health, instead merely emphasizing that you truly mean the words you have written.

This sign off might come off as a little formal because of its age and history, but you've indicated that your relationship is semi-formal in nature so I don't think that 'Sincerely' will feel too out of place.

Whatever you were using before

If you have been frequently communicating with this person using a small set of greetings and sign offs, I recommend you stick with what you were previously using. A change in your greeting, no matter what you change it to, will only draw attention to why you are changing it, which is exactly the opposite of what you desire. Greetings and sign offs are mostly filler anyways, and rarely do people ascribe their full meaning to them.

That said, this advice only applies if your communications are frequent and consistent enough that your correspondent will notice the change. If you think that the change would pass uncommented, then by all means find a more neutral set of phrases.

Different people react differently

Each person reacts differently to bad news. Some people will welcome and be encouraged by well wishes even if the health being wished for is impossible. Others will be frustrated by the same greetings. Figuring out which sort of person your correspondent is will help you formulate the best greetings for them.

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