Dear Prudence

The Silent Goodbye

I might be dying. Should I tell my friends, or spare them the pain of saying farewell?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,

A disease I’ve been dealing with for several years has taken a turn for the worse. I don’t have a terminal diagnosis yet, but depending upon upcoming tests and possible treatment, I could have a week, a month, six months. My physician brought up palliative care for the first time. Last winter one of my longtime friends died; I was terribly hurt that his wife failed to inform me he was even sick—I heard it through the grapevine. Upon consideration, I decided perhaps my friend had chosen to spare me (and himself) my despair and a tearful goodbye. Another friend told me when her husband was in hospice, his good friend Tom wept so much through a difficult final visit that afterward the dying man weakly said to his wife, “No more Tom.” Do I inform my longtime friends, particularly those whom I’ve loved deeply but who live far away, that I have one foot in the grave? If not, do I write a letter to each of them to be mailed at my death, explaining my decision and how much their friendship meant to me?

—The Clock Is Ticking

Dear Clock,
I am so sorry about your prognosis. I do hope there is treatment that will give you more good time. When the great Nora Ephron died of a blood disease, many of her good friends were shocked that she had kept her terminal illness so closely held. In his beautiful tribute to his mother, Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein explained she didn’t want her illness to take over every conversation. Also, Bernstein noted of his famously witty mother, “The thing is, you can’t really turn a fatal illness into a joke.” How to face death is a profoundly personal decision. You know that if you don’t tell, you will hurt those who wanted to be there for you and to express what you have meant to them; but you also dread the idea of being drenched in their tears. If you tell—and I lean toward your doing that—you should do so after having put in place some gatekeepers. These will be friends and family members who can spread the word about your condition, field calls and requests to visit, and intervene if you have a “Tom” who needs to be escorted from the room. It’s easier for third parties to say, “Lydia would love to read your letters and emails—please understand if she can’t respond—but she is not up for visits right now.” If you set up a page at a place like Lotsa Helping Hands, friends who want to bring meals, or run errands can do so—and the page can give instructions about visiting with you, or not. Whatever you decide to do, be content with that choice, and do not spend your precious time second-guessing yourself.


Dear Prudence,
I’m the mother of a 9-year-old daughter. It’s often my habit to pleasure myself during the early afternoon when I have the house to myself. But last week, my daughter who was at an activity, unexpectedly biked home early. I didn’t hear her come in through the front door, as I was at that point quite deep into one of my solo sessions. Imagine my surprise when she burst through my bedroom door to say hello! I frantically threw the covers over myself and pretended as if nothing was wrong, but my daughter clearly looked a bit shocked. How can I possibly talk to her about this? I consider myself liberal and would want to convey to her that masturbation is healthy and natural. But how do I reconcile this with my own sense of shame and my urgent desire for her not to tell anyone about this? Even worse, can I get in legal trouble? Haven’t I exposed myself to a minor, albeit inadvertently?

—Frantic Mom

Dear Frantic,
Let’s take your last concern first. Starting from the moment of her birth, I’m sure your daughter has seen her mother naked plenty of times. That this time your exposure was accidental and embarrassing doesn’t make it criminal. I’m no lawyer, but I doubt there’s a lot of case law based on prosecution of parents who are discovered by their children engaging in the activity that resulted in said offspring. And though our justice system definitely needs reform, people are not being hauled off for going solo in the privacy of their own bedrooms. It’s good that you want to be able to talk to your daughter about sex in an open, positive, and age-appropriate way. But I don’t think this awkward encounter is the right opening for the “masturbation is normal and healthy” talk. You don’t really know what your daughter saw, except that you were both surprised and embarrassed by her bursting in on you. Stop worrying about this, and quietly laugh it off. Be assured that even though you didn’t say anything, your daughter got a useful life lesson in privacy, the virtues of knocking, and the value of saying to herself, “I don’t want to know.” You got a reminder of why locks were invented.


Dear Prudence,
I live in a U.S. military community in Asia. While living here, many families vacation throughout Southeast Asia, and elephant trekking is a popular activity. Using elephants for any sort of entertainment requires systematic, brutal torture started during infancy, when trainers separate baby from mother. It is cruel, and with a quick Google search, anyone can see the horrific conditions under which these creatures live. There are very few real elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia that do not permit trekking. My question is, can I tell people this? Several times a month, I hear people talk about it in person, or post photos on Facebook. I don’t want to be a killjoy, and normally I wouldn’t voice my opposition to another person’s choices, but these are helpless creatures that need humans to stand up for them. Is it pointless to politely “shame” people who have ridden elephants, since the deed has already been done? Furthermore, if done on social media, should I send a private message, or can I post about it publicly so that others will understand, as well?

—An Elephant Lover

Dear Elephant,
I am an elephant lover too, and worry about the future of these magnificent, endangered creatures. Indeed a Google search will return many articles about the terrible conditions under which elephants are used for tourist treks—here’s a recent article in the Dodo. As the piece points out, many people go on these treks because they love elephants, too, and have no idea of the abuse the animals endure. It’s a delicate thing to try to convey to people that they are engaging in morally objectionable behavior. You do not want to approach this with the idea of shaming people, especially those who have already gone. I think you should still try to do some educating, but by taking a two-pronged approach. One is to post generally on Facebook for people planning a vacation in Southeast Asia about issues around trekking. The second is to privately talk to people who are planning a trek, but haven’t yet gone, and explain to them that these treks put elephants under extreme physical and emotional duress. Then you have to offer some alternatives. When you have these conversations, be polite and positive, and do not get hostile or defensive in response to negative reactions. You say there are few true sanctuaries, but do your research and find some. The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand is one that doesn’t allow riding, providing a peaceful haven for rescued elephants while letting tourists have an amazing and educational experience. Treating the humans you interact with on this with respect will make you more effective at getting them to do the same in respect to elephants.


Dear Prudence,
I’m a writer and have published three novels in the last 10 years. Two have became New York Times best-sellers and have been translated into numerous foreign languages. My father, who always fancied himself an aspiring novelist even though he never tried to get anything published, hasn’t read any of my books or ever congratulated me. When my books have come up in family conversation, he turns the discussion to his own unpublished novel. Last month, at age 70, he finally paid a vanity press thousands of dollars to publish it. It’s 500 pages of clichés and repetition, wrapped around an overstuffed plot. My father wants to know what I think of his book, and he also wants me to promote it to my social media following, which is large. But the thought of doing either makes me resentful to an extent that I haven’t felt in years. My father has some personality issues that make direct confrontations deeply unpleasant and unproductive, and a flat refusal would likely become a family kerfuffle and end up putting my mother in the middle. How do I get out of this without inflicting unnecessary pain on my family or myself?

—Writing Past Wrongs

Dear Writing,
So now I’m going to go over the best-seller lists looking for novels about a daughter who has broken free from an emotionally dense and difficult father, one who obsessively resents that his child has managed to fulfill his own thwarted dreams. If none of your novels are about this, you’ve got material for your fourth book—you could include actual excerpts of Dad’s masterpiece for comic effect. It’s amazing your father has never been able to take pride in your remarkable success; even more amazing is that he actually finished his doorstop disaster. You can honestly tell him that you know how hard it is to write a book and that you are incredibly impressed that he has accomplished this. Then next time you visit you can give him a tutorial in Facebook and Twitter, and help him make his first posts to flog his Ambien alternative. If he tries to bully you into promoting his work yourself, tell him sweetly you have so many writer friends that you’ve had to make an inviolable rule that the only novels you tout are your own.


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