Anyone out there remember playing the board game LIFE? It’s been years since I spun the wheel of fate, but during a visit with friends who have a seven-year-old daughter and nine- and 11-year-old sons I was invited to put a pink peg in a car and see what life had in store for me. On the living room floor in between turns I watched college football and snacked on cheese, nuts and assorted spreads while the other adults relaxed on the sofa and chairs.
The game didn’t take much concentration since the kids were content to move my car according to my spin result and keep the pay day cash coming my way. I was well into my first glass of wine, and nearly to the end of the game, when I looked down and realized I was the only car without child pegs. I turned to my girl pal and asked her where I could get my kids. She matter of factly explained, “you’ve passed the point where you can have kids,” before reaching over to refill her snack bowl.
What? You mean there are no fertility clinics on the board where I can dole out loads of cash?
So much for escaping reality. Even in the game of life, I was the “infertile” car.
Hey, I think it’s time for a refill of that Pinot Noir …
But there was a silver lining. On the space demanding daycare payment for each child in the care, guess who was exempt?
Later in the weekend my guy and I watched the thought-provoking documentary Food, Inc. Among the many memorable scenes in the film was one involving Barbara Kowalcyk who lost her toddler son after he ate an e.coli-laced hamburger. She turned her pain into action and is now a food advocate who helped bring about Kevin’s Law, the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act . In one interview about how people respond to her, she said one of the toughest aspects of her work was dealing with the pity that often comes her way. “It’s not pity I want,” she said. She preferred that people take action.
This brings me to a reader email I received about pity.
“I’m curious to know how you would respond to those who offer over-the-top pity. I know a woman who dramatically talks about our ’empty arms’ and repeatedly says how her heart aches so deeply for us.She did a blog entry about us: ‘I weep knowing how hard they have tried to have a baby and still have empty arms.’ I can’t pinpoint why, but her words turn my stomach inside out. Short of avoiding her, I’d like to know a good way to respond to such extreme comments while remaining poised. Often these comments are presented in person and as you may know, it’s sure hard to think on your feet when you have to respond in the moment.”
I can so totally relate to that uncomfortable feeling. My response would likely be an extension of Barbara’s answer … “We’re trying to move beyond sadness to acceptance. While I appreciate your deep sense of the loss involved it isn’t helpful to be reminded of the pain.”
I’ve found the most helpful responses when someone learns of our experience is simply to acknowledge the difficulties we faced with a quiet and sincere, “I’m sorry,” or “I admire your strength.”
Welcome other responses…
And for those of you who have been waiting for the ebook version of Silent Sorority, your wait is over! It is now available and can be found in print at Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.
November 29, 2009 10:46 pm
I think the sad fact is that we are all so different that there are times when others just “can’t win.”
I understand the factor about someone being so over the top about pity. Too much. But i also often hear other childless women say “no one recognizes the pain.”
An acquaintance recently lost a pregnancy at about the same point in gestation that we lost our child. I remember how touched i was at one of the few condolence letters we received. An entire family signed the card. Those folks really “got” that it was a loss for us. And naturally i wanted to send a brief note to the folks i knew who lost the baby.
Our connection is thru the young woman’s parents. So i requested an address so that i could send a note. And i was told not to bother. That the young couple is “over it & has moved on.” (This, 10 days after the loss.) And when i requested feedback at my blog over this, i received some answers, one of which i thought bordered on harsh, indicating that i was trying to make more pain for the couple. Which was not my intent. I recognized that others deal with loss differently than do i which was the purpose of my requesting feedback, but i still was surprised.
So, if i had sent the note i might cause more hurt. But if i don’t send the note the person might be hurting & i’ll never know. It is indeed a no win situation.
What i find is that dealing with infertility/miscarriage is hell no matter what angle from which it is viewed. Over the top pity is not empathy, it merely shines a light on pain without helping the person to feel better. But no sympathy or acknowledgment at all can be painful too. I guess it comes down to is that we are in a culture unable or unprepared to handle loss & true empathy is hard to find.
November 30, 2009 12:21 am
Well said, Kathryn. Well said…
November 30, 2009 1:07 am
I think that grief — for a lost baby, for a lost spouse, for an unknown child that never came along — is so individual that it is hard for us to know what is best to do. Like the person who emailed you, I have difficulty believing that the couple is “over it” after only 10 day! But. Their family is attempting to help them, with the best of intentions, I’m sure.
The other side of that coin is that the couple is going to be dealing with this for the rest of their lives, and I’m sure your correspondent will see them at some point to provide a hug, kind words, etc.
Thanks for posting! It’s nice to hear your voice….
November 30, 2009 5:06 am
People who are talented at empathy and sympathy will stand back and read each person/couple first before offering their help. It’s a rare talent. I don’t personally possess it.
I would probably go with a direct response to excess pity. I’ve used, “Please don’t look at me like that,” said gently and kindly, with a bit of a smile, but nevertheless quite firmly, followed by a clear explanation of the treatment I’d prefer. That worked well. Alternatively, and along the same lines, something like, “I like it when people…” or “If you’re willing to help, you can…” followed by a clear action plan.
November 30, 2009 6:19 am
It sounds like the dramatic friend might be using the IFer’s grief to draw attention to herself. If she mentioned it once, I would consider it sincere. But to say it repeatedly and without provocation is suspicious.
Especially someone who actually uses the word “weep”. That’s a very over the top word choice.
If she mentions it again, I would just tell her I would prefer not to talk about it. And then I would give her the biggest “only you understand me” smile. As a result, she’ll think you both are “comrades in arms”.
Even thought it isn’t true, the plus side for you is that she won’t mention it anymore and you haven’t hurt her feelings.
To be honest, I don’t really understand what pity means. Is pity when someone fakes empathy?
November 30, 2009 2:40 pm
“Is pity when someone fakes empathy?” … yes, Jen, perfect! I believe you’ve nailed the definition I couldn’t find yesterday searching reference guides. Sincere empathy doesn’t involve histrionics.
November 30, 2009 3:50 pm
There is a friend I met via IF cyberspace. I’ve not met her IRL. She is an amazing person. And she’s come to the end of the TTC road without a bio baby. And I certainly weep for her. Literally, I’ve sat alone and just thought about how wonderful a person she is and how her offspring would be positive for the gene pool and how sad she must be and it makes me cry. Shudder even. It’s not pity. It’s empathy. Empathy is relating to the feelings associated with BEING in that situation. I never ever would have guessed that my very sincere sadness for my friend could be perceived by her as anything but supportive. Now I’m totally confused about what to do/say around her…
November 30, 2009 4:35 pm
I’ve had some world class crying episodes — in private — for friends and relatives who have lost parents, siblings, children, etc. It didn’t seem fair to burden them with having to comfort me. Augmenting the ideas of those who have commented before me …perhaps asking (gently) what someone needs is one way to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing…
I’d also like to point out that needs change over time. I was devastated a few years ago in realizing my last alpha pregnancy failed and I wouldn’t have any children with my husband. A friend sent a lovely orchid with a card that read, “thinking of you.” It was a comforting gesture. If someone today, realizing for the first time that my childlessness was involuntary, sent an orchid, it would feel, well, weird.
December 1, 2009 1:52 am
Oh my gosh, does this post bring back memories. We used to play Life all the time when we were kids. I used to try to get sent back deliberately so that I could collect all the children the board offered — how ironic, lol. I don’t remember the daycare fees, though — wonder if that’s a more recent invention??
I’ve often said that I hate feeling pitied, but some respect for &/or an attempt at understanding what I’ve been through would be nice.
December 2, 2009 7:46 pm
As others have said, it is hard to know what a person would appreciate hearing and not hearing.
I wonder of your reader could sense something in her friend that indicated it wasn’t true empathy but rather a desire to share in some drama.
That is my take because my mother is one of those people. If she was being sincere in her empathy or validation, I wouldn’t trust it.
December 3, 2009 6:33 pm
What I’m so tired of is people assuming that IF is something to “just get over already!”
I don’t want pity, and I don’t expect empathy from anyone but my husband and one close friend. It’s just sensitivity that I find myself craving.
December 7, 2009 4:44 am
I put our game of Life up in the closet and it will soon be donated in our next run to the thrift store. I thought I was the only one that played that game and still got through it with no kids. 😉
As far as the pity and comments:
We kept our infertility a secret from pretty much everyone. I am so glad we did, since the pity is one thing that I think would make me rip heads off or have a complete meltdown. Especially now, as we have reached the end of the road and I’m not handling it at all well. I only hope that I can make it through without destroying my marriage.
December 7, 2009 10:51 am
Thank you for that. I’m going to use that comment next time, “We are trying to move forward and it isn’t helpful to be reminded of the pain.” I do find excessive expressions of sorrow very difficult to deal with and they don’t help, they often make it worse and definitely don’t help my relationship with the person because I just try and avoid them. Pity is something I dread.