How do you sugar-coat crappy?

Not like, “Oh, that dress/haircut/pound-o-make-up looks great on you” when it actually doesn’t. But those times when someone looks you dead in the eye and announces: “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”

And you holy-hope it is, because it looks and sounds horrendous. And you’re kinda glad it didn’t happen to you.

I thought about that recently reading this blog, The Hungry Little Caterpillar (which I love, and am still reading through). The author (a 3-Dayer) remembers being annoyed when people trotted out the ole “if there’s anything I can do...” when they learned her mother had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

I’ll admit, I’m guilty of that. Because who know? Maybe the receiver has some deep need that isn’t obvious to me.

Seriously, if someone told me they needed me to pick up dinner/toiletries/random-movies-to-keep-the-kids-occupied because the only way they could deal with bad news was to stare at the wall, comatose, I would. And I wouldn’t urge them to stop staring at the wall until Day Three or so.

But it never seems to come to that.

Sometimes I mutter the obvious: “This must be a hard time for you,” or “That’s really sad.”

A few times, I’ve replied to “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” with “Well, I’d hope so. This is pretty bad. But it looks like you have a lot of good people supporting you.”

Who knows if they hated me afterward? I deal with most unpleasant topics with (sometimes ill-advised) humor and hope it doesn’t shock the socks off the receiver. In reality, I am probably the least of their problems.

I never really seem to verbal-vomit my take on the truth, though.

I usually hope those in deep pain/fear/uncertainty realize that it’s not going to go away in a few weeks; it will be more like several months or a year. I hope they realize the goal of any coping mechanisms shouldn’t be to make the pain/fear/uncertainty go away, but to make living with the it more bearable. So that one day, they’ll wake up and not recognize the pain, but a new, scarred reality.

But I just keep that to myself.

Because who wants to hear that?

(You can find tips on responding to someone who has received bad health news here.)
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1 Response
  1. Lynn Says:

    Hi! Thanks for reading! I know my reaction was pretty irrational, but you know, that's how emotional things can be... I respond to a lot of stuff by getting angry, really angry. A lot of times I have to take time off from my life when something bad happens because if I don't, I'm liable to lose friends because I'll bite their heads off.

    What I would like - and what I try to do - is ask more specific questions. "Is there anything I can do..." becomes "Could I make dinner for you this week?" or "Would you like me to do your grocery shopping this week" or "Could I run you to a doctor's appointment?" It's easier, I think, in the grip of tragedy, to have something specific to focus on.

    Part of it, I think, is that we're trained NOT to ask for help, when - especially when! - we really need it. So when someone says something generic "anything I can do?" you say no, because 1) you shouldn't admit weakness/ask for help and 2) you can't focus well enough to THINK if there's anything you need.

    Because of this experience, I've got a LIST of things now, in case something happens again. Next tragedy, if someone asks me what they can do, I know some stuff they CAN do that will make my life easier.

    "Is there something I can do?" "Yes! Take my daughter to the movies and the park for a while so I can get a nap." "Yes, I'd really love it if someone else could do about 4 loads of laundry for me..." "Absolutely... could you drive me around on my errands today because I really HATE driving and I need to get these things done..."