Tuesday, July 20, 2010


For those people who don't know me well, albeit via blogland, or as an acquaintance, I have something to tell you that may colour your view of me. I don't do sympathy. I never have really been able to. So much so, that my mother has called me cold-hearted. (Actually she called me a cold-hearted bitch, but I am sure she meant that last bit in the most constructive of ways.) When I hear problems and woes, I just don't get that "thing" that makes people concerned and helpful and come out with the appropriate platitudes.

When Subtle is sick, and I mean really sick, the best I can do is come out with some suggestions for his return to health. Vomiting? Ok, well, you make sure you keep hydrated and I suggest some weak tea with sugar to provide some simple carbohydrates to keep some energy and nutrients in his body. Aching somewhere? Aspirin, Paracetamol, Neurofen, or a combination of all of the above perhaps.

See, not sympathetic. Just practical advice. And for God's sake, don't go on to me about things, because I will truly zone out.

Recently, one of my very good friends has been diagnosed with cancer. And I work in the cancer treatment industry, so it is a topic on which I can be truly helpful. I have been taking her many calls, as well as following up on her appointments, and talking her through the implications, treatment options, side-effects, and all manner of practicalities. Further, one of our mutual friends, also rings me seeking advice on the same sort of things, so that she can talk to our friend knowledgeably on all of the mentioned topics, and provide her with the necessary sympathy (which she does well).

So far - so good.

My friend is apparently absolutely thrilled with what I have been able to help her with, and my frank and pragmatic advice. I seem to be the calm voice of reason in the swirling storm of emotions and confusing quasi-facts that she has found on the internet. Laying things out for her matter-of-fact-ly has suited her very well and given her reassurance when needed. Also, apparently, due to my exposure of many years in the industry, I have some understanding of the psychology of the patients going through this disease and treatment.

The problem is now beginning to be that she feels so comfortable with my advice and pragmatic attitude, that she is starting to border on needing sympathy from me. We had a long conversation yesterday where we talked through her latest information on her treatment process, which all went well. I was satisfied with what she had been told by them, and what I had previously prepared her with. But then I could feel the conversation turning ever so slightly. I fear she may have wanted me to say something like, "There, there, everything will be ok." Which I can't do. I don't know if it will be. I want it to be all ok, but I can't give platitudes that I feel are full of empty sentiment.

When I can't *do* sympathy and all around me seem to be able to do it, I do wonder what happened in my upbringing, or in my head that makes me immune to it. I do sometimes feel that I may indeed be that cold-hearted person my mother alluded to. I had wondered if it was overuse by my mother of using guilt to garner a reaction, which made me this way. Or just a fluke. Subtle, thankfully for our progeny, does sympathy very well.

1 comment:

Esz said...

I can't do sympathy either. All those platitudes do feel empty and false. To me, I don't know how they could be reassuring - you can't say everything will get better because you don't know if it will. And even if it does, it can't possibly mean anything now.

Like when someone's relative or close friend dies...I do feel bad and wish I could say something that matters but all the things you're supposed to say are so cliche and pointless. Anything else could be seen as uncaring or offensive.