(As I’ve been talking about Jeff’s health and our circumstances with people for a while now, I think I’m ready to write a bit about what the experience is like, to have pain in my life and to have conversations about it with others. This is part one.)
I feel kind of sorry for many of the people I’m relating to in my life right now. Because as I’m going through various conversations with them, I have a choice to make. At what point, if ever, do I mention, “My husband has cancer.” ?
Just for the record, I’m not one of those over-sharers who bares uncomfortable truth out of context, with terrible timing, throwing very private, personal and valuable information to anyone who unfortunately happens to cross my path. In fact, at times I can be a slightly socially awkward introvert, who waits a while before opening up. I am ok with listening first, asking questions of the other and sharing healthily… if it is safe, appropriate, if I’ve read the other person well enough to guess that they are indeed interested and it is the right time. (FYI – it isn’t always safe or appropriate, I don’t always read people properly, not everyone is interested and it isn’t always the right time.) For the most part, I am comfortable with myself and even when things get personal, I’m not a bad conversationalist.
The conundrum comes when I realize this person will be in my life for a while and Jeff’s and my situation will eventually come up. How to tell them, to introduce the information for the first time? If I bring it up too soon or botch the actual words… before they get to know who I really am…maybe before I’m emotionally ready to release such personal information…they may retreat. I don’t blame them for being unsure if they want to commit to anything more than just a superficial relationship with one whose life is going to be so very messy. On the other hand, if I wait a long while to share, after we have actually become friends or it is obvious I’ve had the news for a while, they may justifiably ask, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” How on earth do I make this easier for them? For me?
Because that moment when I actually say the words, “My husband has cancer,” can be just so terribly awkward. It is not an emotionally neutral statement and there are so many the unspoken implications that go along with it. Where exactly does a conversation go after that? And who leads after this point?
For some, it can be an emotional moment, especially if they know Jeff, if they already care about me or my kids, or if they have a similar experience in their background and more fully understand the weight of what I just said. Some have cried or gotten choked up with me as I’ve told them, which is powerful. I am almost always touched deeply when this happens – I don’t find this awkward at all. It is just that in these moments, I realize that, while I’ve had time to process the shock and grief, the other person hasn’t. So sometimes I get thrust into that also-awkward role-reversal moment of having to offer comfort to someone else about my grief. I’m ok with this and fully understand how we get here. But sometimes it still doesn’t seem quite right.
For others, they don’t know what to say. Either because they themselves are socially awkward around heart topics and don’t want to say the wrong thing. (Which is totally ok by the way.) Or they may want to ask questions but aren’t sure just how to do it or if it is appropriate. Sometimes there can be long awkward silences I am expected to manage because I am the only one in the conversation who seems to know what to do next. For the record, I appreciate these people, because I know they mean me no harm. In fact, I don’t mind subtly coaching them on how to handle me or others like me. I usually don’t even mind leading the conversation from here based the other person’s comfort level and needs in the moment.
Then I’ve had some conversations where the other person wasn’t really listening and didn’t hear what I said… either literally or metaphorically. Or they were so unsure of what to do that they pretended they didn’t hear me. (This has happened more than once.) These are truly awkward moments because they usually go on with the conversation as if I just said, “My husband had a burrito for lunch.” And I’m left to figure out where things drifted off to the surreal. I just mentioned cancer and they are back to talking metaphorical Mexican food. I dared to get vulnerable and go to the deep end of the conversational pool, entrusting them with something valuable from my heart… and they ran, screaming for the shallows, leaving me treading water, wet and alone.
Fortunately, awkward doesn’t kill. It is just uncomfortable. Sometimes it leads me to question myself and my relating abilities, which isn’t always a bad thing. A little more introspection and self-awareness can often be quite helpful in learning to relate better to others. Sometimes I let it hit me in my self-worth, which is pretty much always a bad thing. Or, I wonder if staying connected in my outside world is worth all the work it takes. (Hint – almost always, when I consider hiding, it is dangerous.)
Ultimately, creating congruence in my life between my inner and outer worlds, between my heart and my relationships – working the discipline of appropriate honesty rather than secret-keeping – is very worth the effort. The pain of talking about A when my heart is breaking about B…well, I suspect if I did that long enough, unlike awkwardness, it would eventually kill something inside of me. Secrets create a powerfully destructive duplicity. And this is much more painful than an awkward conversation.
Awkward passes. Thank you Jesus. So I’ll keep at it, trying to figure out how to do that for which there is no real instruction manual. Trying to learn conversational graciousness, kindness and gentleness – and walk with others well as we learn to communicate about important things during an important season of life.
Pr. 12:25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.