Good intentions, wrong words

When my mom died, my boyfriend told me he “knew how I felt” even though no one in his family had ever died. He told me to “not feel bad.” He told me  the Bible says that all things work together for good (making Romans 8:28  my least favorite verse since most people take it out of context like that). He looked at me a month after she was killed and wondered why I hadn’t gotten over it yet. What was my deal anyway? Why was I being all sad and depressing?

And he listened for hours and hours. He held me as I cried. He was there at 2am. He went out of his way to learn about grief. He read up on it. He dragged me to a counselor. If it weren’t for him, I would be lost.

And some of his words were born from innocent  ignorance. The pure kind of ignorance that comes from never having experienced what I was going through. And he had to learn not to say “I understand what you’re going through,” or “It can’t be that bad,” when I poured out my heart to him. And I appreciate him more than anything in the world. And I married him.

I learned the importance of words a while back  after listening to a tape of my aunt talking about what to not say to single parents. This was back in my  first or second  year of college. She and I switched cars after mine broke down in her hometown on my way back to Placerville. Her car had a tape of her talking about single parents,  she being one herself. She is involved with S Moms. (Although I still haven’t figured out what the “S” stands for since it doesn’t stand for “single”… super maybe? :)) She said never say, “I don’t know how you do it,” because, and I never thought of this, most single moms don’t know how they do it either! And they may be thinking they’re not pulling it off and wonder if you’re noticing. Have I ever said that to a single parent? Maybe. Possibly. But I’ve never been a single parent (joking about Charley’s late hours aside) so it would have been  said out of  simple  ignorance.

In the same vein, most people don’t know what to say to parents of special kids because they are not in that situation. They have, what my friend, Sue, calls, “boring” kids. :) I have had many conversations with other parents of “not so  boring” kids, and many of the same themes arise.

It’s not helpful when you tell someone your kid’s diagnosis and they start out the next sentence with, “At least your child will never…” The nurse at the doctor’s office just told me, “At least  your child  will never fall out of  her crib like my son did last week.” Many people have said, “At least your child will never scratch her face like my  baby always did.” And after telling people why our babies don’t move, many of us have heard, “Well at least you will never have to chase them all over the house!” But what they don’t get is that they would die of grief if someone told them their child would never do those things! It’s like saying, “Well at least with little Johnny’s Down’s Syndrome, you’ll never have to worry about rising college costs!” It’s just not appropriate. Yet every time I’ve heard “well at least…”, it’s from some good-intentioned person trying to make me feel better. And it’s weird, but I do feel better–that  is until I’m thinking about it later that night. Then I’ll  think about how  my little  daughter will at least never do those things and I get sad all over again.

I’m not saying that I’m remembering this one person who said those things and that one person is, of course, you yourself, and I’m harboring hurt feelings towards you. On the contrary.  I don’t remember half the times I’ve heard these things. I  don’t have anyone particularly in mind (besides that one  nurse mentioned above who was actually really nice) when I think of the hundreds of times I’ve heard words like these. It’s  something I would have said too. In fact, I’ve caught myself saying similar things  like this plenty of times. Well at least  you had fire insurance… at least you can get another dog… at least there were no other people involved… at least they  didn’t feel  any pain.  Later I’ve wanted to smack myself for saying those things!  

I realize now–and this is the point–that  it’s not my responsibility to see the bright side for other people. It’s always better when  someone comes to those conclusions on  their own. Like somehow it’s okay for Charley to say, “At least  my daughter will never have to wait in line at Disneyland,”  but not for other people to say that.  

But even when people don’t know what to say, I always feel better after talking it out with someone. I hate elephants in the room. I don’t mind questions. I like talking about Laelia, and sometimes that involves talking about her disability in the same way talking about  Billy means mentioning his bad haircut. I also like hearing about other people’s kids. I can sympathize when little  Joey gets a hangnail. I don’t have to compare it to Laelie and conclude that Joey’s boo boo somehow doesn’t count.

And  most of  the other moms I’ve talked to  feel the same way. At least the ones who are over the initial grief. We love how our friends and families have supported us and loved us and been a shoulder or an ear or a helping hand to us. Even when they didn’t know what the right thing to say was.

You give “boring” a good name. :)  

2 Responses to “Good intentions, wrong words”

  1. Kristin Hetrick says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s what’s been on my mind a lot lately, like when people say to me “You know, you should look at the bright side, they are making great advances with CF. people are now living into their 30′s” Since I’m in my late 30′s and I haven’t really lived yet, it’s not all that comforting….but statement always said by well meaning. really nice people.

    BTW….how about a get together??


  2. Melissa Rowe says:

    I liked reading this post – to be more aware. It’s funny how some people just don’t really think about what is behind the things they are really saying, yet sometimes overthinking can have the same affect (me). There’s gotta be a bridge between carelessness and caution, kind of interesting to think about.

    “I realize now–and this is the point–that it’s not my responsibility to see the bright side for other people.”

    That is a good point to realize… I have had to coach myself with it when I realized some years ago that I walk around with a guilty conscience – always so fearful of offense or just anything. You might have even noticed that I always make sure people know my husband is being sarcastic, as if people don’t know Steve. :) I apologize a lot for things that don’t have to do with me… it’s a really limiting way to live. I’ve grown a lot, but still struggle with fear. While it’s not a bad thing to please people, there is always a context – and always a way to corrupt an initial good thing.

    Anyway – I think I’ve rabbit trailed, but that is why I like reading your blog – you always provoke thought. That sounds obvious, but it’s good to be inspired to think in a society like ours ;) Hope you guys are having a good weekend –


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