I hesitate to write this post because I understand how difficult it is for people to find words for others who are suffering. There are websites with advice on ‘what to say to cancer victims’, with bullet points on what to say and what not to say. This makes any sentiments seem contrived in my opinion. I just appreciate any support and I am not that sensitive to be offended by words, although I have had some ‘interesting’ things said to me!
I’ve been so touched by kindness, especially from those who find it difficult to express themselves. Several men in my life, have emailed me with messages saying ‘I’m not good with words in these situations but I want you to know that I care and I’m following your blog”. Knowing that they find it difficult and yet still reach out and express it is so brave. Many others have found it so difficult they haven’t contacted me at all. In saying all of that, why would I now criticise people for making the effort?
‘Be positive’ is a common thing to say to people and of course it is well intended. If a person going through bad stuff is positive it makes others feel less awkward and it helps people to see their way through tough times. We all know about ‘the power of positive thinking’ but positive people still die and bad things still happen to them. It’s not in our own hands to be as positive as possible in order to have a life with no downsides.
Is it a healthy thing for people to say ‘be positive’ to those who are experiencing deep grief, depression or health issues? Robin Williams comes to mind as an example. From a child he recognised that being funny and upbeat won people over. It made people feel good. The response when you say ‘I feel ghastly and I don’t want to live’ is very different to the response when he covered it up and behaved in a way he wasn’t feeling. Can people just ‘be positive’ like that? Can you just flick a switch like that? I don’t actually know the answer.
We all have a ‘default setting’ and mine just happens to be ‘positive’. It’s just the way I was made. I take no credit for it. I don’t try hard or make an effort to change my thoughts. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a black pit. I embrace change and pioneer change myself. I love an adventure. If I was depressed and someone said to be positive would that work?
Anyone who knows me well knows that I defuse negative things in my life with humour (usually black) but I will also plunge into very confronting reality and express my frustrations and issues if that’s where I’m at. I don’t cover how I’m feeling intentionally by making myself feel something I don’t. Joy and peace is more desirable to me than happiness and positivity. I don’t chase happiness. I just feel happy because I am.
The MOTH (Man Of The House) has a different ‘default setting’ to me. We speak an entirely different language and yet we complement each other and have grown to be more like each other over the years. Here is an example of a conversation this week…
Me: Our garden is looking amazing considering you hacked it back to bare roots only 4 weeks ago. Have you seen all the flowers coming?
MOTH: No I can’t say I have
MOTH: I have noticed all the weeds that are growing through the mulch. I’ve had to pull them out all week.
Me (incredulously): You noticed the weeds but not the flowers?
That makes me sound like an airy fairy hippy and him like a realist… but you get my drift don’t you? That is his default setting. He is aware of it and he tries very hard to ‘be positive’ but his real joy and happiness doesn’t come from ‘trying hard to be positive’.
Colin’s family of origin is entirely different to mine. Although his was comparatively lacking in drama such as my own, his father was a prison officer for 40 years. Surely you can imagine his childhood without me going to great lengths to describe it. They both loved him but their parenting style was more traditional (for our generation) than mine.
On the other hand, I didn’t have an ideal childhood by any means. Life has been tough in so many ways. I lost my Dad when he was 23 years old and my Mum when she was 54. My father was a teacher in the middle of nowhere, Pyramid Hill. My mother married him when she was 19, had me at 20 and was widowed at 21. This left her homeless, penniless and in deep grief. We moved around from family home to family home until our knight in shining armour (Dad) saved us and married my mother. Mum told me this story as a small child as though it was a fairy tale. One day she told me I was the child in the story and I thought it was wonderful. That is an example of her approach of creative parenting.
They then had another 3 children in as many years… 4 daughters in 5.5 years. My new Dad was and is such a wonderful man and has always treated me as his own. I loved and still love him very dearly.
My parents weren’t perfect by any means but we were not hit or smacked as children and mostly had to ‘discuss’ our actions and figure out how to be better people when we had acted inappropriately. I would have chosen a smack any day. Being responsible for your actions is really tough. I used to stand there thinking ‘just smack me and get it over with’.
Because of this, I grew up with the ability to articulate my feelings and answer for my behaviour. I had deep love and respect for my parents through thick and thin. It hurt me more if they said they were disappointed in me than if they had hit me. There were no cop outs or easy solutions. My recollections of my childhood are all good. I don’t have any/many bad memories and no bitterness. I inherited my mothers ‘Pollyanna’ approach to life. Admittedly, this often annoys my children and The MOTH as it did me with my own mother. Seeing things from the other persons point of view isn’t always what you want to do when you feel angry or hurt!
Mum was my best and closest friend as well as a role model in my life. She was a beautiful Christian woman with a heart of gold, a funny and mischievous nature, a mountain of wisdom and a whole pile of flaws as well. I could carry on with the list of injustices life has thrown me, just like anyone can. I have known deep suffering. I have needed to grieve like anyone else and struggled at times to see the flowers in the garden.
So does ‘being positive’ make me a hero? No. I am just being who I am. I am a result of my own upbringing and watching how my parents approached bad things happening in their life. They disciplined me with love and Mum role modelled to me her way of dealing with stuff. She talked about things a lot with a smattering of black humour. Well… more than a smattering. We often got the giggles at the most inappropriate times. Of course I recognise that this trait for seeing the silver lining could also be an inherited personality.
My joy comes from my ‘positive default self’ but also from my faith which gives me the peace and self worth that I need to battle on with things. I have a crystal clear purpose for my life and know that whatever happens to me I will be ok. I believe I have had more positives from this illness than badness. That’s a pretty huge statement to make isn’t it?
That’s why chemo, chemo and more chemo… with a little surgery and radio therapy thrown in aren’t going to knock me flat. It’s got nothing to do with trying to be positive. I worry for others who have cancer and a tendency for depression. Putting on that smile to make others happy can be very tough.
In saying all of that, I DO appreciate your sentiments very much and I would hate it if you felt too afraid to speak now. Say what you like. It’s better than saying nothing. I won’t judge anyone who says ‘be positive’. I know it’s just a way of expressing feelings and besides, I already do feel positive… except when I feel like chucking up after chemo!
Feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you think. I’m no psychiatrist!
Jenny , that was an awesome story of your life , you really are a beautiful person , lots of love macca xxxx
It is really interesting to reflect on how we react during tough times and how we respond to friends going through a tough time. I know that last year when one of my work friends had a mastectomy and chemo I gave her lots of gifts and used humor a lot as well. She found the cancer journey very difficult but she received a lot of love and support. I think you have been so positive Jenny and I am amazed at your wonderful attitude. I hope that you have felt lifted up by all of your friends. You have been very honest as well.xx
Hi Jenny, thanks for sharing your thoughts in such a sensitive way. It is very helpful to hear what it’s like from the inside. Never change!! Cathy xx
Excellent post. Regardless what the problem is, people often don’t know what to say so they fall back on phrases. Not much to do but let it go, and be glad they said something at all I guess. I hope one day soon we read that you’re done with treatments and free of cancer. Many times I don’t know what else to say either.
a few weeks back, well it could of been a few months back I put a comment on your blog, I work with a friend of your sons apparently and he got me reading your story. I was saying to you how wonderful it is how positive you are and inspirational, that I was not in the same boat as you but loved reading your story.
Well on the 20th of October I was also diagnosed with breast Cancer!, could of fallen off the chair backwards, it is stage one and slow growing they tell me. this Thursday 30th October I am having a lumpectomy and what ever else needs to be done.
I would just like to say in reading your story for about the last 5 months or so, has put me in a wonderful frame of mind. I have so surprised myself at how I am handling it, if it was a few years ago, I think I would of gone crazy with depression. At the moment , it has not crippled my thoughts, it may be a different matter after the lumpectomy, but I am ok now.
So I would just like to say thankyou, as I believe that you and your story has put me in a good mind frame.
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Oh my gosh Pauline I’m so sorry to hear that. I wish you well with your travels and im so glad you’re coping ok. Don’t be too hard on yourself on the days that you aren’t. Happy to chat if you need someone!