Last week the rumor that Desmond Tutu had died flew over Facebook. A site with a name similar to a respected news source posted an article. A few people shared it, and hours later Desmond Tutu’s family had to release a statement. Tutu himself was in the hospital, but, as in the great quotes from Monty Python, declared he was not dead yet.
The whole incident reminded me how quickly incorrect information, speculation, and allusion can spread, particularly regarding someone’s health. Often, those who are sharing the information are well-meaning, but the result causes distress. The person and family and friends can be inundated with people calling with their incorrect information, and instead of spending their time and energy healing, they spend time and energy correcting inaccurate information. When we are going through stressful times, knowing people are discussing our distress is troubling. In some cases, the rumor is so hurtful, relationships are damaged.
We in community can provide support for those among us who are going through stressful times. We can offer prayers, presence, and help, and often providing those things means we have information about the situation. How do we, as faithful members in communities, honor information about distressing situations of others, and what do we do with information we may have?
1. Ask ourselves, "Is this my story to share?” Your story to share is yours. The state of your health, the state of your personal life, any distress you are experiencing, any joy you welcome - they directly happen to you and are yours. You are the one who gets to share the story, including as many or as few details as you choose to include. If the said incident did not happen to you, if you are not the one who is ill or in distress, it is not your story to share.
2. If it is not my story to share, do I have have explicit permission to share the story? When we have family members, close friends, coworkers, and even acquaintances, we inevitably have access to information about their health and well-being. Perhaps they have shared with us in a deeply sensitive conversation. Perhaps we have been the recipient of a group email. Perhaps we have come by this information through casual conversation. Regardless of how we have come by the information, before sharing it with anyone else, we have the responsibility to discern whether or not we have explicit permission to share this information. How do we do that? The conversation may look like this: “Thank you for sharing this information with me. If other mutual friends ask me about your situation, how would you like me to respond?” Unless you have permission from the person whose story it is, you hold the story in your heart.
3. Do not share information gathered through third parties. If I had a quarter for each time a parishioner has come to me, saying, “I heard about Jane when I was talking to Mary, and Mary said Jane was (fill in the blank with incorrect information) because Sally told her,” I could retire. Information that has travelled through several people is almost always incorrect, and it is quite honestly gossip. One way to be kind and caring when someone shares information about another’s health with you is simply to ask, “Did the person give you explicit permission to share this information?” If the answer is, “No,” a reminder of #2 may be helpful.
4. Ask yourself, “Does sharing this information help the person in distress?” I wonder if we share information about others because we sound like we are in the proverbial loop and not because it truly helps another. Sharing with our prayer group (because she has given us permission) Jane is sick and needs help with meals is useful information. Continuing the conversation about how someone other than Jane told you she is undergoing tests for cancer? Not so helpful and in fact, is likely hurtful. Talking about a person who is not present in the room should be a conversation held with honor and prayer, and words spoken cautiously so we don’t move from sharing helpful information to sharing incorrect and hurtful information that is not ours to share.
5. Recognize everyone who is undergoing a health or personal crisis has different comfort levels. Some people are comfortable with freedom of information; others are very private. When someone is in a time of distress, we honor their choices, including that of information sharing. That includes posting anything on social media about another’s health and well-being.
6. Realize clergy cannot freely share information. I have a practice of asking the question regarding what information the person would like me to share, and that is exactly what I can share. I’m not keeping secrets; I’m honoring confidentiality. I do appreciate when members hear of someone’s illness come to me rather than engage in speculation, and I also appreciate when they realize I can only share information I’ve been given permission to share.
7. Beware of narrative public prayers. This is a particular issue with me. Prayers that sound like this: God, we pray for Jane, that she be healed from her cancer, because we all know what a challenge her life has been and how her husband cheated on her with the UPS woman and how her children are not present for her in this time of need…” I wish I could say I’m exaggerating, but no. God knows our needs, and God does not need a list. Simply stating the person’s first name is adequate. Gossip in the name of God is still gossip. I think prayers of silence are most helpful, with a few words as possible.
8. Remember the power and grace of not knowing. I often have this conversation: “I saw Jane was on the prayer list. Why?” Instead of asking someone besides Jane, remember the grace of a direct, handwritten note to someone that says, “I noticed your name on the prayer list, and I am praying daily for you.” Our prayers are not more valid because we have information, and often, especially when someone is ill, not having to share more information is a gift of grace.