Feelings, wo wo wo, feelings…

When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness or suffers a loss or separates from their spouse or has a child that engages in a behavior not universally accepted, the way that they are perceived in the community shifts.  Townsfolk may feel sympathetic, empathetic or, my particular “favorite”, judgmental.  Depending upon the particulars, the aggrieved may be sought out or avoided, but rarely anything in between.  By virtue of little more than happenstance, they have taken on a sort of celebrity status, albeit it dubious.

I am acutely aware, for a variety of reasons and through a wave of intuition, that I (and my family) have become the people who others are considering, talking about and, I am wise enough to recognize, judging.  While I experience “CVS moments” that fill me with dreaded anticipation as to whom I might bump into, I am likewise acutely aware that many people, upon seeing me for the first time since our announcement, are tentative as to how to approach me.  I sense the underlying anxiety and feel the “that’s her” glances in the most benign spots: the gym, the market, Starbucks (venti, decaf non-fat extra hot no foam vanilla latte, please)  the post office.  (Full disclosure: I don’t really recall the last time I went to the post office, but it represents the kind of spots that I have found this to happen.)  But, alas, this is not the first time in my adult life that I have felt this way.

It happened in the seemingly endless weeks between my breast cancer diagnosis and my surgery date.  I recall well-meaning people not knowing which way to look when, just days after my diagnosis, my father in law passed away after having fought colon cancer for four years.  And then, again, when I lost my own father several months later, he a victim of lung cancer.  All kind, caring people and, I am fairly confident, devoid of judgment, they just didn’t know how to process all the loss that we were experiencing over such a short stretch of time.  It was incomprehensible to everyone.  Mostly us.

Sometimes it is a look which oozes discomfort. Or it might be that I sense (perhaps in error) them having a fleeting, silent thought that perhaps I hadn’t see them so they could just keep walking.  I’ve done it myself: spied a friend or acquaintance across the store (usually CVS) that has recently endured a life event and found myself gripped with a sudden loss of language and ability to offer condolences, or support or any other solace that a woman of a certain age should be able to share without reservation.  I get it.  I hate, however, being on the receiving end of it.

I assume no malice, anger or opinion, rather their profound discomfort which, in turn, dumps the onus on me to make them feel better.  I am quite sure this is no one’s intention, but a rampant phenomenon, nonetheless.    Hardly unique to me, I do believe, however,  that given the shitstorm that has been our lives for the past ten years or so,  I happen to be particularly sensitive and in tune to it.    It probably speaks to my discomfort in being told that I am doing a great job…because I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am wildly unclear as to how I would react should the situation be reversed and I was an onlooker and not living through it.   I am also well aware that I have been given no choice and all anyone ever really wants is to feel a semblance of control and at least a modicum of choice.  In instances of death, illness and finding yourself the parent of a transgender kid, all that flies out the window.  We are left with a choice – sink or swim.  And as treacherous and unpredictable as the waters may be, the choice to swim is gonna trump sinking every time.

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19 thoughts on “Feelings, wo wo wo, feelings…

  1. The last line says it all and sums up for me too, what life is all about – choosing to sink or swim. Duh! I for one, can’t wait to run into you and Jessie. I hope it’s at CVS:). We won’t even have to talk. I’ll hug you and high-five Jessie. I just hope she’s wearing her new kiss ass boots! Xo

  2. I only think of you as a swimmer! There’s no sinking in your family. I wouldn’t expect anything different…. Life is too important! And like Caren, I too, would like to run into again and finally meet Jessie!

  3. Julie: I too hate being on the receiving end. Your comment “I get it.  I hate, however, being on the receiving end of it,” hit a chord with me. I must be more resilient I keep telling myself. Why is it on for me to hate being on the receiving end of the thoughts and yet I – since I am human – haven’t always said the right thing or acted fast enough? Well, I actually try to. And what I don’t get is that families weren’t raised like mine – to call when someone is sick or in pain and simply offer an ear (and bring kugel). What I don’t get and what maybe you’re getting at is why I would allow someone to remain in my life who can’t call or write or reach out. Well, I pretty much dont and you may find that you don’t need that type of person in your life. Simply walk by them, is what I do. Life is too short to care about people that haven’t learned how to express empathy or genuine caring. What do you think? Am I being too harsh?

    • I think it is less about having learned to express empathy and perhaps more about the anxiety that arises on both sides of the house. I, myself, have been guilty of not reaching out the way I should or would have wanted to. We all do the best that we can, but life is complicated and we never know what is going on in someone else’s life…

  4. Here’s my take on being in the ‘enlightened minority,’ for what it’s worth: you can choose to share, educate, placate, or none of the above. If my daughter is with me, these days I often choose ‘none.’ Screw ’em. Life is short and her comfort level is what’s most important to me. (Took me a while to get to this place, but it’s very liberating.)

    • I am always happy to share, educate, placate and, well, none of the above. There are times, however, when I would prefer to climb into a hole. Liberating is good, Al!

  5. I get what you are saying, and yet, as the mature adult (note closer to 50 than 40, egad) I have become, and being a therapist to boot, I have found that I have become very comfortable with the reaching out, the offering condolences, the checking in or just a warm hug. My daughter, 10, just learned that her friend’s parents are divorcing. She teared up, asked great questions and then said “I don’t want to say anything to her because I don’t want to make her sad”. I gently informed her that “she is sad”. Nothing my daughter can say to her will make her sad, but how loving for her to know that my daughter hurts for her and supports her. Imagine becoming comfortable with such acts before the age of 40.
    I don’t live in Boston anymore, but if I saw you at the CVS, I’d be sure to try to give you whatever it was that you needed and certainly NOT a dose of judgement.

  6. What a wonderful writer you are! My prayers and thoughts are with you and your family,and mostly I wish you serenity ‘
    love, Marcia

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