27 March 2007

Loss for Words

I was just getting myself a coffee in the kitchen at work. One of my coworkers asked me how GH was doing. I said that he'd been better, that he was having a lot of trouble with his liver right now. She shook her head, said she was sorry to hear that, and then said something that people say to me relatively often: "I don't know how you do it."

I never quite know what to say in response to that. What I said today was, "Frankly, I don't know how we do it, either." Sometimes I say that we do it because we don't have a choice. Sometimes I just say, "It's tough." Sometimes I say, "You could do it too, if you had to, and I hope you never do."

I think people mean it as a compliment, but I admit that I find it a strange thing to say. I'm not entirely clear on what "it" is, for starters. What I always assume people mean is that they don't know how we keep on fighting, keep on coming to work, keep on living our life as normally as possible, in the face of some awful circumstances. If that is indeed what people mean, then my honest answer to their question is that for me, there's no other way to do it.

To give that answer would entail a discussion I'm not usually in the mood to have, though, so I try to keep it simple, but honest. "It's not easy" pretty much covers those bases.


Christine said...

I think it is meant as a compliment, some empathetic thinking about how the other person would handle your situation. That said, I think your response was a good one. Maybe just change the subject?

To be honest, I'm one of the people in awe of you. I know how rough it was when my husband got his diagnosis and how much it affected me. And lupus is controllable. I have every respect in the world for you for not only "doing it," but doing it as well as you do.

Hope you're having a good week.

LeggyP said...

I agree that its meant as a compliment. But I still see what you mean about it being an alienating comment. My inlaws (and my husband) felt that way when he was sick and I felt that way in the depths of grief after my brother died and people said stuff like that or the one I really loved (insert sarcasm) "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." (Yes, but I wish he didn't trust me so much.)

Comments like those always felt to me like people were trying to protect themselves, to say "well that bad stuff can't happen to me because I'm just not as strong as you so clearly are." And that's bull. It happens to ordinary people who do the best they can under incredibly shi**y circumstances.

lala said...

I don't see it as a compliment so much as a way to say that I can see how hard it is for you, instead of saying "I'm sorry " or something I feel is trite. We all know that there is nothing anyone can really say......

Rachel said...

I think people just really don't know what to say. Or maybe they mean that they admire your strength. But you're right that saying, "I don't know you how do it" makes it sound like you have a choice, or that you are somehow different from them because of the hand you've been dealt. I can see why you avoid telling people.

DoctorMama said...

I think you're being generous in your assessment of others, because a lot of people CAN'T do "it." People often fall apart in the face of serious illness, and you haven't. Not everyone can focus on the day before them and see the good things there. Not everyone has the strength to keep living life as normally as possible. I think some people are being pretty honest when they say that.

Dorcasina said...

I agree both that it is often genuinely meant in the spirit of kindness AND that it works to protect the person--however irrationally--as leggyp suggests. I also know that I found (and still do find) it evokes strong and not really positive reactions from me. I don't advise any of these, especially in a work setting, but I have been know to utter the following responses.

"Actually, it's pretty unbearable. How're things with you?" (Only in cases of terrible stress, or where I felt the person was mouthing platitudes without sincerity).

"It would be easier if you would...[iron my clothes, babysit my child, pick this up from the grocery, drive my husband to chemo...] Can you do that?"

Or my inadvertent and entirely sincere reply when I had simply had too much ineffectual sympathy: "What's my other option?"

Cancer makes one cranky. I have to say, though, that it's the people who say nothing that really bug me. We all say dumb things; I, who know better, am still stunned at the crap that comes out of my mouth in such situations. But even if I'm crabby in the moment, I am grateful overall to those who are brave enough to try and connect, any way they can. Here's wishing you selective inattention where the bozos are concerned.

Anonymous said...

Different situation, but same question.

Both times my husband deployed to Iraq people often said that, or some variation of it, to me.

I try to be generous, I know that people don't know what to say, that they are just trying to reach out.

But sometimes, something about it felt wrong. The subtext seemed to be along the lines of "I love my spouse so much that I could not handle this. That you are handling this tells me that your love is somehow less than."

Or that I had some super-human strength that they did not. That somehow I must be immune to at least some of the pain because otherwise, how could I do it?

It also implies that if I stopped "doing it", then I was failing.

I'm rambling. I'm sorry about that. I hope my sharing helped and if it didn't, feel free to delete!


Yankee, Transferred said...

I remember reading on another blog where the spouse of the seriously ill person said that the comment, "I can't imagine" was the same kind of thing. You want to say, "no, you're right. You can't." People don't know what to say, and there are no good words (she blathered on an on). I'm sending my love and hopes for the best, as always.

Deb said...

Delurking to reach out and say that my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family as you head into your appt. tomorrow.
Fingers and toes crossed with love.

PS to Yankee Transferred - it is great to see your name here and I hope all is well in your world. Your blog is missed!

Angela said...

I also think it is meant as a compliment and people usually don't know what else to say. Your response is very honest and sincere.

Your attitude and outlook on life and your family is so amazing, I really admire you.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Maybe what they mean is, "Something of this magnitude has never happened to me, but I want to show my support and empathy. I just don't have the words to express what I really feel." Or maybe they're just glad it hasn't happened to them. I'd give them the benefit of the doubt. Life has certainly dealt you a shitty hand right now. Maybe they're expressing their admiration for your fortitude, your ability to attend to the mundane details of life and still find happiness and laughter in feeding Cheerios to your babies. I'm in awe of you for breastfeeding twins for nine months.

t_cole said...

i know how this story ends. i have read everything current up to now. my story is not the same as yours. not by a long shot.

but ppl say the same thing to me - "I don't know how you do it."

I always, ALWAYS respond with
"I don't do it well"

you will keep 'doing it' however it takes. ppl will say silly and sometimes thoughtless things - and maybe i am one of them.
just know that their sentiment comes from a place of admiration and compassion.

peace to you and yours.
love from afar -