Between you and me, there have been points in the past few years where I have had to grit my teeth and smile when yet another person has said to me, “You’re so strong!” There have even been times when, upon hearing that phrase, I wanted to lash out and tell the speaker that I’m not strong, that I don’t want to be strong, and that quite honestly some days I want to break down with “vapors” (a la all those historical Southern novels I read as an impressionable preteen) and recline on the couch all day while others tend to me. There, I’ve admitted it.
Often, I know the speaker means well. They don’t know what else to say, or they truly are complimenting (for want of better word) me for hanging in there and not falling apart. These people’s sincerity, concern, and compassion is evident. When that phrase comes from their lips, I feel humbled, not worthy of their words. I shared that with a close friend, and she was perplexed. Why, she asked, do I feel unworthy? She reminded me that I’ve sold a hard-to-sell home, found a full-time job in a market hit especially-hard by the economy, have moved twice as I’ve started over in a new town, etc., and I can only say that I merely did what had to be done. Every day — and many, many days it was more like every hour, every minute, even — I’ve simply relied on my faith, concern for my children’s well-being, and the love of family and friends to do nothing more than the next thing that needed to be done, and then the next, and the next.
Other times — much less often, thank goodness — the speaker oozes compassion and concern, but sincerity? It just doesn’t seem to be there. Perhaps I’m not being fair, but when they pause, lean close, and their eyes have more of a predatory gleam, I feel as if their words were just a prompt they hope will cause me to open up and share with them anything negative that has happened. Not because they care, but because they can share it with others. All in the nature of showing their “concern”, of course. There, I’ve admitted that as well. Yes, sometimes I’ve doubted a person’s sincerity.
I try not to dwell on the other person’s motive or possible agenda. Instead, I try very hard to stammer out a response that is equal parts honesty and comfortably shared at that given time. The first year or so after my husband passed away, the response was often just a mumbled “thank you”, as I tried not to fall apart. As time has passed, I’ve gotten better at saying something like “thank you, but I’m just doing what many, many other people do — I just kept taking the next step.” Some days, though, I revert to the mumbled “thank you”; it’s all I can muster.
I know I’m not alone. A friend and former coworker told me that when her daughter died from leukemia at age 4 over 15 years ago, she became enraged when people said things like “Oh, she’s in heaven now and not suffering. And you and Tom still have Joey.” One time, she said, her mother-in-law wisely led her away from such a “comforter” before she could recover from the comment and slap the speaker. She laughed sadly when she told me about it and said, “I’m sure she meant well. I sure hope so.”
But truth be told — and perhaps only if you’ve lost a spouse or a child or someone else very close to you will you understand this — sometimes the motive of the speaker just doesn’t matter. Sometimes, there’s that one phrase that grates on our nerves, that causes us to cringe or maybe to stiffen our back no matter who utters it. If for you there is such a phrase, I fervently hope you never hear it again.
What about you? If you’ve lost a loved one, particularly a spouse or a child, or if you’ve faced divorce or another loss that has devastated you, has there been a phrase that gets, as my fb friends say, “on your last nerve”? Is there some expression you wish would be permanently banned from the English language? Feel free to share in the comments below or in an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you found a way to deal positively with this kind of situation? I hope you’ll share your experience and any advice you can offer us as well.