Friday, January 16, 2009

Two Things Not To Say to Someone Going Through Catastrophe

I have a friend who was diagnosed with kidney cancer (not Wilms' Tumor, she's an adult) about a year ago. They caught it early and she is doing fine right now.

In a recent email meme about herself she mentioned that she still really hates it when someone tells her how lucky she was that they caught it early. Lucky, she thinks, would be not to get it at all.

She's right.

Now, first of all, let me reiterate that when someone is going through Something Bad, the one thing worse than saying the wrong thing is to say nothing. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do friends ... if you say nothing, don't call, don't write, you create a vacuum. Chances are good that your friend will fill in the vacuum with their own thoughts, and they often (the DRE-BFF tells me) have no basis in reality. Thoughts like, "Oh, I guess I thought we were closer than we are," or "I guess I'm really self-involved and they don't want to have to listen to me," or "They think I need to just deal with it and get over it, don't they?"

But enough about me.

But here are two handy rules of thumb ... even though one might have the best of intentions, two things to avoid:

a) "You're lucky." There's always a reason someone is lucky. I'm lucky because even though she's fought cancer twice, Little Warrior is still alive. Someone who loses two children out of four is lucky because he still has the other two. Patrick Swayze is lucky because he can afford healthcare and still has a job.

But this is something that can only be decided by the person themselves. Having someone with perfectly healthy children tell me that I'm lucky? Having someone who has never had cancer tell my friend she is lucky?

b) "Helping" the person to find meaning in the catastrophe*. Or, what I've been guilty of, proclaiming that there is no meaning.

Now, if your friend asks you, well, that's something different. They have opened the door, and you are welcome to go in.

I learned the first go 'round that there is no meaning in my daughter getting cancer. There could not be a good enough reason for this. But you see, she is my daughter. Perhaps Mary thought it was worth it for Jesus to die ... I would not be so generous with humanity. I am too selfish in my love for her.

This go 'round, my father and I had a conversation. He had cancer when I was a child. "Luckily" it was an easy out. They went in, did surgery, and that was that. No need for chemo or radiation.

But if affected him profoundly. He feels that his life has been better ever since. He found meaning in the cancer; it made him realize that "there are no bad days."

In our conversation, he told me that he hopes I feel like that some day, that LW's cancer makes life better.

Well, I thought about that for a while, and then talked to him about it again. "Our own lives are cheap," I said. "The meaning that we find, it was worth what we went through ... assuming we survive. But could you feel that any meaning you found would be worth your child facing death?"

My father has lost a child. He understood and agreed.

"But ..." said I, comprehension dawning, "It's not up to me to decide the meaning of this. Because even though this affected me profoundly, ripped my heart to shreds, it did not happen to me. It happened to Little Warrior. And when she gets older, she is the only one who has the right to decide whether this had meaning."

And I realized that I cannot take it away from her by proclaiming my view, that there was no meaning in this. It is not my decision to make. All told, if she grows up to say, "You know, this happened to me, and it made me who I am and I really like who I am," who am I to argue?

The Cliff's Notes of "a" and "b" are the same thing: Don't assume you're wiser than the other person.

Even if she's only 3 years old.


*I don't need to tell you that defining what is and is not a catastrophe ain't yo thing, neither, right?


ms. kitty said...

Thanks for the reminder, LE. I know I'm guilty of this on occasion even though I know better. I'm sorry that I may have done it to you. I hope you'll forgive me, if I have

Lizard Eater said...

(LE, STARTLED!) No, no, dear one. In fact, this wasn't aimed at any blog readers. Just throwing it out into the ether.

Mostly me processing that in saying "there's no meaning" I'm as culpable as those who try to assign meaning.

I KNOW that pre-cancer, I was the guiltiest. I always try to look at the sunny side. Which is fine, but there's some situations in which I need to just keep it to myself. :)

ms. kitty said...

Whew! I am always taking the temperature of my relationships, it seems, and it gets a little obsessive at times. I have second-guessed my comments to you and others in the past and your post must have touched one of those slightly-questioning spots in me. Thanks for your note.

the change said...

LE, I want to thank you for your openness and willingness to share this journey with us. You amaze me, and while I understand your point that this has happened to LW, the unmitigated horror of watching your child battle cancer has been your cross the bear. The manner in which you have approached her battle, the soul searching you have done and shared, and the window that you have opened into this experience have been gifts to many of us watching from afar. I have laughed with you, I have cried for you and LW, and I have learned immeasurable amounts about how I might better support loved ones, friends, and even strangers who are dealing with a catastrophe in their own lives. Thank you.

Kristina said...


I deeply hope that one day I find meaning in my own cancer catastrophe. All I can say is.... I'm not there yet.

Nancy said...

I think that people try to fill in uncomfortable silences with anything. I have come across that myself. I admire most the people who told me, "Hey, that sucks, and I don't really know what to say." Those are the friends I call when I'm down.

I have gained a lot from our loss and grieving. But I can't say that I wouldn't fix things if I could. Finding the good in the bad is a personal journey for everyone, and for anyone else to assign meaning to your own journey just doesn't seem right or accurate to me.

Big hugs. I love your writing.