I teach an adult-education seminar in Marin County, California, titled "Write Your Own Obituary (Or a Loved One's)." In a class a few weeks back, I suggested that students steer of obits cliches including, "She never said a bad word about anyone," and "He'd have given you the shirt off his back."
When I suggested that "a courageous battle" with such-and-such a disease is another hackneyed descriptive we can all do without, one class member taught me a lesson in sensitivity. This 50-something woman was there to write her own obit. She was suffering a recurrence of cancer and said that after enduring repeated rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, the ordeal feels like waging war.
Handling the sensitivity of non-obit writers is tricky.
Things that we journalists discuss amongst ourselves can be misunderstood by the general public.
That's why, when I want to share something - like jokes or family-written obits that seem ridiculous - I resort to e-mail rather than run something on this blog that might be hurtful.
At the same time, I have to say that not all cancer patients are as sensitive as your student.
I remember when Caroline Richmond, who writes obits and who has firsthand experience with cancer, told us at a Great Obituary Writers Conference a couple of years ago: "You don't fight cancer. You treat it and get on with your life."
I think the problem with things like "courageous battle" or "would give the shirt off his back" is when we leave it there instead of trying to find out exactly what that cliched comment meant to the person we're writing about.
That woman's brief description is far more powerful than "courageous battle." We should strive for that detail, especially about things that can so easily fall into cliche.
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