My recent extended and ongoing flirtation with the health service is a case in point, although perhaps not quite for the reasons most people may anticipate. My life has always been something of an open book – and indeed I recently published a full-length memoir. In this spirit, I decided to keep my friends and family fully informed about my adventures in Vancouver General Hospital, using social media and email. The expressions of love and support that I received in return were both humbling and moving.
You know there’s a ‘however’ coming, don’t you?
However… (told you)
While I am completely aware that every single message had good intention behind it, some hit the mark while others – sadly, because I know they really were intended to be of some help - did not. It took me a little while to work out why I received some better than others, and then, one day, the penny dropped. That falling coin has forced me to change the way that I now communicate with others in difficult circumstances (e.g., this very morning, a cancer-survivor friend who has just been hospitalized and is naturally very worried about what the future holds).
I discovered - to my mild surprise - that there are two kinds of things to NOT say to me when I am in hospital, feeling rather unwell and/or worried: Firstly, don’t tell me to ‘stay strong’ or ‘be strong’. Instead, assume that I am doing my very best already, and that I don’t need instructions. Second; avoid the ‘thoughts and prayers’ cliché which is so over-used by politicians and other public figures. Why? Well...because it's bollocks - at least in part. The 'thoughts' are welcome of course, but the 'prayers' bit you can keep. If prayers worked, there would be no suffering anywhere. Both of these kinds of messages suffer from the same problem, which is that they are – to be blunt – lazy, impersonal and totally lacking in empathy. They lack creativity and any kind of engagement with the real issues.
This doesn’t mean that everyone misses the mark – by no means is that true. My wife, after all, physically and emotionally supported me in person throughout my illness. My daughter wrote me a public message which moved me to tears as I read it. She told me that she recognized that what I was experiencing was difficult, she told me that she knew that I was trying my best to get through it, and she told me how much she loves me and that she wishes me a speedy recovery. In short, she probably told me everything that I needed to hear someone else say. She made the difference by engaging with what was happening to me, and by empathizing with my feelings. She engaged with me….
She told me – without using these exact words - that I was not alone.
I’m not sure that it ever gets any more reassuring than that.