For the Week of January 17, 2016: Aren’t You Better Yet?

It’s impossible to escape the ongoing tragedies that have become part of the daily diet of the nightly news.  Shootings, car bombing, the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino, the Syrian crisis.  Even as I turn off the television to avoid the onslaught of disaster, I know that within a day or too, attention will turn back to the political wrangling and escalating attacks between this country’s presidential candidates, the tragedies of violence, loss and disaster fading from view and, perhaps, our consciousness.

I remember first few days following the massive earthquakes in northeast Japan which unleashed a devastating tsunami.   My pregnant daughter and her husband were leaving for a five-year stay in Okinawa, and were stranded with us in California as their departure date was postponed and flights cancelled.  They waited anxiously, wondering if my daughter would be forced to stay behind for my granddaughter’s  birth, since the window for her to travel was closing fast.

The nation’s attention was riveted on the Japanese for a time.  Newspaper headlines, radio and television news, and  possibilities for disaster relief consumed our attention.  But all too soon our waking hours were filled with the usual partisan wrangling, the Arab spring,  air strikes in Libya, and Osama Bin Laden’s death.  The devastation experienced by the Japanese receded from prominence, despite the extent of the tragedy.  Even years later, many have not recovered from the disaster.

I wrote my Japanese friends at the time of the tsunami and again, a few weeks later, simply to reach out and let them know they were still very much in my thoughts.  “You’ve touched my heart,” one friend wrote. “It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.”

“It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.”  Those words echo in my mind as I think of all the other natural and man-made disasters that have turned people’s lives upside down.  Aren’t things better now?  Back to normal?  Perhaps some people’s lives have improved, but many remain locked in suffering or hardship long tragedy strikes.  How quickly we forget.

I’ve seen and experienced the same tendency in the way people respond to one another in the first weeks after a cancer diagnosis, loss of a loved one, unexpected job loss or other hardship.  Initially, there’s often an immediate outpouring of sentiment and concern from family, friends and acquaintances.  That’s important, because concern and kindness are our lifelines, helping us cope in those first unsettling weeks.  But recovery from any unexpected tragedy or unexpected loss or illness takes more than a few weeks.  Much longer, it seems, that people around us expect.

“Aren’t you better yet?” I remember the words of an impatient relative when I’d called long distance one late night, alone and grieving, just months after my first husband drowned.  I quickly regretted I’d called.  She launched into what she probably felt was a “pep talk,” her words peppered with “you should… and you should…”  Not surprisingly, it didn’t do much to assuage my sorrow and loneliness.  Her expectations of me were unrealistic, but the trouble was, I began to feel guilty.  Shouldn’t I be feeling better?  Be back to “normal?”

I’ve since realized grief and recovery don’t operate on a pre-determined timetable, although we may try to force fit our emotions into some erroneous notion of how long we “should” feel bad.  The night I called my relative, I needed understanding, some reassurance that my sorrow was real and normal.  I needed was to know I had not been forgotten, even living a continent apart.

“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

(From “Kindness”, in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

I was living in rural Nova Scotia at the time of my husband’s death, a place dominated by fishing villages and many who shared a long history of losing family and friends to the Atlantic’s turbulent waters.  They understood, perhaps, what my California relatives didn’t.  In that faraway place, many of those people–some I hardly knew–kept coming by, bringing food and friendship, willing to listen, care for my daughters or simply let me know I wasn’t alone.  I hadn’t been forgotten, but I had been seeking support from the wrong people.  At the time, my family was incapable of helping  me through my grief.  I discovered friendship and understanding from those who had experienced similar loss and sorrow themselves.  They  well knew that healing needed time and the support of others.  Since, I have  come to appreciate the wisdom of those cultures whose tradition is to take a full year to mourn the loss of a loved one.  I’ve never forgotten those Nova Scotia friends and how they offered such understanding and kindness as I navigated my way through a tragic loss.

“Aren’t you better yet?” Many of the men and women in my writing groups have talked about how difficult it is for loved ones or friends to understand what they are experiencing.  Our friends and family want us to get well or feel better, but it may translate as impatience or  a lack of concern.  It’s difficult for them too—watching a loved one suffer can make us feel helpless.  Instead we mask our fear or concern with the question, “Aren’t you feeling any better yet?” or advice, “You should try…”  Yet the result is that those responses only make us  feel isolated, even guilty for feeling bad.

Writing Suggestion:

“Aren’t you better yet?” Have you heard these words as you’ve struggled to make sense out of your illness or loss?  Have there been times that you’ve felt forgotten or misunderstood?  Write about the discoveries or disappointments in the nature of friendship in the wake of your illness, treatment or loss.  Write about discovering kindness, even new friendships, in unexpected places.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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