It doesn’t matter whether you see your family once a week or once a year, they seem to have a knack of asking about the subjects you’d prefer not to discuss. And if you have to attend a gathering with multiple extended family members—like Thanksgiving or a birthday party—you may find yourself having to repeat the same stories and updates over and over.
That’s not the worst thing in the world if you have good news, like a great new job that you love, or having recently bought a house. But if it’s something even vaguely negative, having to tell a series of aunt, uncles, cousins and step-relatives the same thing over and over again can be annoying at best and triggering at worst. Knowing you lost your job, for example, is one thing, but having to walk through what happened with numerous people who probably don’t understand the nuances of your life is emotionally exhausting.
Ever since my mother’s cancer diagnosis last year, events with her side of my extended family have been a little stressful. They all love her and want to know what’s going on with her treatment and prognosis—and I appreciate that—but having to talk about a failed bone marrow transplant kind of puts a damper on any holiday spirit.
And this is why I’ve started making FAQ sheets for family functions. Much like everyone’s favourite passive aggressive section of a website where an organisation or person tries to answer people’s most frequently asked questions before they get in touch to ask them, my family FAQ list serves the same purpose. Ahead of family gatherings, I write out and then print the questions about her health that I’m expecting to get, as well as a few bonus ones for the extra curious.
What to put on the list
Start out with a big, bold, obvious title, like “How’s Aunt Sally?” followed by a line saying something to the effect of “Thank you so much for asking!” (It helps to be polite.)
The rest is pretty self-explanatory: write out questions that family members have asked in the past, as well as the ones you anticipate getting now. This can range from very basic (like “What exactly was the diagnosis?”) to more specific information about treatment, if you decide to get into that.
Also, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know the answer to something. Those are some of the questions I dread the most. If you’re not sure, for example, how long a person is expected to live, or what’s next in their treatment plan, put that on the list. Along the same lines, you can add a line at the end of the document letting people know that this is all you know about this particular thing, so if it’s not there, you probably don’t know the answer to their question.
You may also want to include a section on why you made this FAQ sheet, explaining the concepts of emotional labour and emotional exhaustion, which many people don’t seem to know about or understand.
What to do with the FAQ list
You have a few options, depending on your family’s technological capabilities. If they’re more comfortable with online information, you can put your FAQ list in a Google doc, make sure the settings allow for anyone with the link to view it, and then email or text it around to those who need it. Alternatively, you can print out several copies of the FAQ sheet (in large print, to make it easy to read and hard to ignore) and place it around the strategically, like at the entrance, or taped to a bathroom mirror.
Of course, your family members still may have additional questions—and this is no guarantee that they won’t ask them—but at least it cuts down on you having to explain something repeatedly and dying a little bit inside each time.
A sample family FAQ
Not sure where to start? Here’s a quick sample. (Please note that the names and diseases have been changed.)
What’s going on with Gladys?
Thanks so much for asking about my stepmother! As you may know, she has breast cancer.
How is she feeling?
It really depends on the day. Some days she’s her usual talkative self, but other days she’s too tired to have a conversation. Her spirits are up and down too. She’s trying to stay positive, but she’s just at the beginning of a long treatment and healing process, and that’s overwhelming.
But didn’t her cancer go away?
Sort of. She had a successful lumpectomy a few months ago, but more cancer was found in a follow-up test. Now her medical team is trying to determine whether or not it spread to other parts of her body.
What happens now?
They’re going to continue with chemo and radiation for six weeks, then reassess.
How much longer does she have?
We honestly don’t know. The doctors are hopeful that she will make a full recovery, but a lot depends on if and where it has spread. This is something we don’t have an answer for.
What can I do?
Thank you so much for asking! You can call or text her if you want, but please don’t be offended if she doesn’t answer or get back to you. And of course, feel free to send over a card or letter—she loves getting mail. If anything major happens, I’ll send everyone a text with the update.
Why did you make this weird list?
Caring for a sick family member is emotionally exhausting, and I can only do so much. I wanted to make sure everyone got the latest information without having to go over everything numerous times throughout the day. Thank you so much for understanding.