Saturday, March 1, 2014

When You Assume...

That's me up there after those last two posts.

Get it?  I made an ass, not really out of you, but definitely out of me.  I ended up dangling from a metaphorical cart because I broke a cardinal rule of writing and I assumed you knew what was in my head without me communicating it as clearly as possible.

When I wrote the What NOT To Say To Someone Facing a Health Crisis I made some fatal mistakes.  I mentioned that each person's response to facing a health crisis will be different and that is so important to remember and I just did not emphasize that enough.  In fact, each individual response will be SO different that I followed up with a post about what you SHOULD do that effectively contradicted the first one.  I heard from dear dear friends who read the NOT post and felt like they had messed up somehow and that could not be far enough from the truth.  So I'm going to try to filter the mud I mixed up over the last 2 day and communicate things a bit more effectively.  

Clarification #1

I wrote those posts with a certain group of people in mind.  I guess I was envisioning that advice going to the friend/acquaintance on the periphery who was moved to act but was not necessarily close enough to the patient or family to be able to easily identify their needs.  What I realize now is that a) I didn't make that clear and 2) I didn't account for the extrovert-y types who don't really have this "acquaintance" category.  

Clarification #2

I originally wrote those posts remembering certain incidents where I encountered someone who, while still meaning well, lacked appropriate boundaries or was just so codependent that they didn't realize that they were making my illness about them.  These are a small minority of the interactions I had during my illness but they were the most draining and traumatic.  I generalized those to inform all of my advice and didn't emphasize that the majority of people who would want a list of do's and don'ts aren't the kind of people who would ever make it about them anyway.  I didn't think that through completely which created a situation where when I listed "I can't imagine" and "How are you?" as things you shouldn't say I alienated a lot of well meaning people because I wasn't clear enough about what I was trying to say.  

So What Were You Trying To Say?

I'd like to clarify my stance on "How are you?" and "I can't imagine".  These are likely ok for most people but understand, if you ask how someone is and they say "Fine", don't push.  Unless you are very very close to that person please respect whatever boundaries they are setting at that time.  Don't say "I can't imagine" and then fish and fish for "it's not that bad", or if you get "it's not as bad as it seems" or some such don't push and push for all the gory details.  You wouldn't put a veteran on the spot about what they've seen and gone through if you are not extremely close to them.  I'm not comparing cancer to war, but when you have cancer or watch a loved one go through it you don't go to the hospital so they can feed you Skittles while they braid your hair.  It is traumatic, it is grueling, and it's hard to discuss every single time you have a conversation.  So express concern, ask after their wellbeing, but don't push a cancer patient or their caregiver or someone else going through a crisis to make you into their confidant or savior.  I hope this helps clarify things a bit.

Ninety eight percent of the people we've encountered on the road to recovery have been nothing but generous and loving and wonderful.  One other thing I'd like you all to remember is that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, or loses a child, or faces some other awful crisis, they do not become a character in a movie.  They stay the same unique, flawed child of God they were before, so the same hang-ups, impulses, and baggage they had before the crisis will inform the way they receive your efforts.  The human spirit combined with the grace of God can meet immense challenges in ways that are incredible, this is true.  What is also true is that extreme hardship brings out all of our personal protective measures, so using me as an example, everything in me was screaming to get in the bunker and hide all the while I had to be out at appointments and accepting people into my home more than I ever had in my adult life.  This colored my interactions with everyone all the time so that there were times that well meaning conversations were just too much at that particular moment.  So if you do reach out to someone and it doesn't go how you thought it would, please have mercy, they are bringing so much stress to every interaction and that is going to cause some awkwardness from time to time.

Finally, I want you to know that I remember what it's like to be on the other side.  To hear about a situation that is (here I go contradicting myself) unimaginable and to short circuit at the enormity of it and your powerlessness to do what you most want--which is to stop it.  I know what it's like to want that person to know how deeply you feel for them and what it's like to realize nothing you say seems like it can do much good.  When you approach someone with love and prayer and your very best intentions, you will bless them.

 You will not take it away.  You cannot take it away.  

You WILL still bless them and lift them up.  

Back to you dear me sort this that any clearer?


  1. Nella! I'm so sorry if this has been stressing you (and your friends) out. But really, that first post felt super helpful yo me. I'm a thinker not a feeler, so there is this part of me that always worries that I'm accident,y offending people. Exactly what I wanted was, "Don't say, 'I can't imagine.' Do say, 'I'm so sorry.'" That's what you gave us.

    And for me anyway, I'd rather find out now that I was doing it wrong, even if it embarrasses me in the moment, so that I can avoid doing it again in the future. I stand by my thank you. And please blame me when all your friends are mad at you. It's my doing. I need a sheepish face emoticon here, but I don't know how to do that. Just imagine it.

    1. Kendra don't be sorry, really none of us have anything to be sorry for, not you, not me, not my friends who did or did not say certain things. These 3 posts have been a great exercise for me as a writer and I've learned a lot from writing them. I also hope that the evolution of these posts helps my readers see that even though it doesn't feel like it, and it might not be received how they imagined, they CAN bless others who are going through something difficult. No blame needs to be cast in anyone's direction and my friends aren't mad, they just contributed their experience, which I think helped us all learn something, because they're awesome like that. Thank you for starting this conversation!

  2. When I was going thru chemo and occasionally ran into peoplei knew, I hated the "how are you feeling" question because I didn't care to go into specifics at the time. I was feeling a LOT of mental and physical things all at once and could not sum it up other than "just fine". I knew they wouldn't understand and I didn't want cliche answers out of just politeness. But that's me in general too. I appreciated the "I'm sorry you have to go thru this, I'm praying for you" waaay better than any other response. I was more upset that my infant son was being cheated out of nursing and mommy time than I was that my hair fell out. In fact I happily wore a turban because I hated the feel of a wig. As fast as my hair grew back, I can tell anyone that hair loss for chemo is not that big of a deal. Some people in e stores would send a sympathetic look rather than a comment and I was ok with that. I agree. It is sad to see an infant with a sick mother! But throwing the ball back in my court asking me to explain my emotions or feelings -sorry but your asking for too much!

  3. Hi Tm, I'm so glad to see you here again...I hope you and your son are doing well! I'm with you, I still think "I'm sorry you're going through this, I'm praying for you" is the best way to go when approaching someone going through a difficult situation. We also have dislike of wigs in common, we must be kindred spirits! Thank you for sharing your experience here, it will help a lot of people.


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