Well, you look great! I am not sure how many times I have heard this over the past six months. People learn that I have been sick, had surgery and am in chemo and after talking to me for a bit, those words stumble out of their mouth. I know they mean well. They probably do not know exactly what to say and those words seem safe enough but they tend to make me laugh. I suppose after everything I have been through that I should not look so well, and the fact is that I am grateful that I do not look horribly ill.
This morning while at a yard sale in my neighbourhood, I ran into some folks I have not seen since my cancer diagnosis. One of the women uttered the above words at some point. As we continued to talk, she said them with greater conviction and then paused before expressing herself differently: You look well, like you are at peace. I was grateful for this distinction and thanked her, assuring her I was. This seemed to me to be a compliment of a higher calibre because it spoke to the core of me rather than the outside appearance. I mulled this over as I walked home and thought what would I tell people this far into my journey about what to say to folks who are ill. I know that I have said hurtful comments to people in the past unintentionally and I am sure that will not change overnight. I need to pray for more empathy and compassion too. I am not picking up stones to cast here. I am thinking out loud for my own benefit too.
The reality is that many people would want the assurance that they are looking great. I realize that right at this moment that is not a priority because I do not look ill. When I look in the mirror I see a face that is tired but not haggard. Gentle inquiries about my need to rest are welcomed. Enthusiastic comments about my weight loss are a double-edged sword because I am not trying to drop pounds. They remind me that my body has been traumatized and is not yet back to normal. Then there are the well-intended people who are sure that they know what I should and should not be eating without fully understanding my particular situation. They perhaps do not realize that I have met with a dietitian/nutritionist and asked intelligent questions. The responses I received satisfied me regarding the choices I have made. This professional had done the research and when I asked about one herbal supplement that she had not yet had time to investigate, she promptly turned to her computer and pulled up the information. She read snippets out to me and then offered to print it off for me. I went home and after reading it, decided to stop taking it.
A dear friend and I had lunch this week and she asked how many people were giving me advice. As we talked, I told her that I was really trying to avoid fear-based ideas. I liked how the nutritionist gave me a holistic perspective and that is how I have chosen to proceed. Yes, it means cutting out some foods that I love but it is a fairly balanced diet. The woman from the yard sale nailed it for me–I am practicing mindfulness as much as I can, and not letting fear get a choke hold on me. I look great because many people are praying with me and I am consciously choosing to hold fast to hope and peace.
What is helpful to hear is what many people also say to me: It’s great to see you! The subtext is that they are thrilled that I am out and about, fully engaging in life. They are affirming my life choices and seeing me for more than my disease. I find that people who focus solely on the disease tire me. I am so much more than my illness so remember to ask about the other parts of my life that are important or tell me about yours. I am interested in that too.
As public as I have made this experience, I have different levels of entry for people into my story. As Brene Brown points out people have to earn the right to hear the story. Some may hear the gory details but that will be a privileged few. I have selected my inner circle and they know who they are. The make up of this group has surprised me but they are my safety net and strength. I can find no words to express my gratitude for them. From there, ripples of support spill out. I am grateful for people’s interest and compassion but realistically I cannot share everything with everyone. I can assure you that if I did I would not look so great. I would be left exhausted. I appreciate those who comprehend this and do not press for information which does not belong to them. My lessons in drawing better boundaries and speaking grace-filled words are challenging but teaching me lots. Please be patient with me when I stumble, fall, and leave you hurting. I am sure in those moments I do not look so great either.
My energy levels are all over the place and do depend on the day of the week. I am starting to see a pattern but nothing is set in stone. The goal for me to continue looking great is to care for myself first and foremost. I am sad when I cannot get together with folks. My heart is hopeful but my body does not always cooperate. I have learned to let go of so much these past months and expectations of myself are often held gently. Please hold your own with great care too.
This blog post turned out much different than I imagined but I pray that it will help people. I do not mean to offend anyone but rather encourage folks to talk with their loved ones about what the needs are. I think if you can do that things will look great!
If you have suffered a life-altering illness, what advice would you give to people?
Words are powerful. How can you use yours to affirm a person’s experience?
I am more than my illness.
Help me to engage fully in life
and shine with your Light.
May people see you
and the power of your grace
when they say I look great.
Thank you, Sweet Saviour,
for your mercy and compassion.