difficult news

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There is nothing like a near-brush with death to show you how far the circles of your life spread out around you.  About a week ago, my mother lost her balance, fell down some stairs, broke her back and now her legs are paralyzed.  I started a caringbridge site for her to post updates for friends and family and the “guestbook comments” started coming in from all over the place and from so many different periods of my mom’s life.  It was fascinating to see how those circles grew over the course of the week (granted, I’m viewing this all from afar.  I can only assume it was even more impressive to my parents who are standing in the eye of this storm.)  It began on Saturday night with emergency calls to family, then as we learned the extent of the injuries, the circles grew to include local friends and work colleagues next and as we began to understand the longer-term implications, the news spread to friends who live farther away, ones we don’t see as often.  Then, as they spread the news, we began to hear from friends we hadn’t had contact with in ages, or acquaintances who know us through mutual friends or family but who are so affected by my mom’s accident that they reach out, sharing their prayers and well-wishes for us.  the circles grow wider and wider (many of the people who’ve responded are people i’ve never met!) as we remember other important folks who aren’t connected to anyone else who knows yet and so must be contacted with the news.

every time i share the story with someone for the first time, i sit with them as they tumble through the same shock, denial, and sadness that have sat on my shoulders long enough at this point that they don’t seem as sharp as they did before.  watching someone else take in the enormity of this story is …. difficult, as it can sometimes tear open again this wound that is only just beginning to scab over for me.  i feel as though i’ve watched several of my friends walk their own sad paths recently and i’ve always wondered what the “right” thing to say to them is so i thought i’d share the insight i’ve gained from being on this side of difficult news.  for me, the perfect response changes over time.  for the first day or two, my favorite responses were (in no particular order):  a tight, wordless and immediate hug from a friend when she first heard the news; friends who wrote and said, “you must be feeling so scared/shaken/like your world has turned upside down.”(because those were all emotions that i was feeling, but hadn’t yet been able to name for myself and as soon as they were named and i could face them directly, the urgency eased.  the numbness had names and i could deal with them better); friends who offered to drop everything and hop on a plane to help out with a complicated related side-issue that i was dealing with at the same time.  other perfectly fine responses were a simple, “i’m so sorry to hear about your mom,” or  “we’ll keep you in our prayers.”

the only awkward response to the news that i got were people who were so startled by the news that they replied with the automatic “is she okay?”  um, well?  i suppose it depends on your definition of okay?  but please don’t feel bad if you were one of the people who said this to me–i’ve done it myself!  every time i call mom to chat, i end up starting with, “how are you?” and there’s this sort of awkward pause because, “i’m fine” doesn’t really apply, but she doesn’t want to start the conversation with a whole litany of what’s not fine.

now that a little more time has passed, i’m finding myself hesitant to share the news with friends or acquaintances who currently have no idea what’s going on because as soon as i share, i’ll need to be strong as they flash through their mirrored, empathetic grief unless i want to get pulled into that dance again myself.  also, as soon as i share, the whole rest of the conversation will be about the accident and the aftermath and honestly, it’s refreshing to have “normal” conversations about everyday things and take a break from thinking about how much our lives have changed in such a short period of time.  i could see how those exact same responses that worked so well for me in the first few days after the accident could have the opposite effect on me at this point.  now, if people want to talk about it, i hope they just say something simple along the lines of, “wow.  that’s going to have a huge effect on your lives, isn’t it?  how’s your mom doing now?” but i’d be forever grateful if they could somehow manage to say those words without a trace of pity.  because yes, this will change our lives and yes, my mom does have a long road with a lot of hard work ahead of her and yes, there will be losses (both big and small) that we’ll discover along the way that will take our breath away (i was lucky enough to have a gift certificate for a pedicure this past week and i realized my mom would never be able to enjoy a leg massage in the same way again.  i hadn’t mentioned my story to the nail technician, so i’m sure she thought it a bit strange that her soothing leg massage brought me to quiet tears.) but …. here’s the happy stuff:

my mother is alive.

my mother has full use of her arms and fingers and hands.

my mother can breathe on her own.

my mother (despite sustaining a large gash on the back of her scalp) did not damage her brain during the fall.

she is still my mother.

she can still do amazing things.

and she has enormous circles of friends and family who love her and are praying for her and cheering her on and what a blessing it is to be able to witness those circles and hear those words of love before we are gone from this earth.

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