Monday, July 8, 2013

You're So Strong!

Between you and me, there have been points in the past few years where I have had to grit my teeth and smile when yet another person has said to me, "You're so strong!" There have even been times when, upon hearing that phrase, I wanted to lash out and tell the speaker that I'm not strong, that I don't want to be strong, and that quite honestly some days I want to break down with "vapors" (a la all those historical Southern novels I read as an impressionable preteen) and recline on the couch all day while others tend to me.  There, I've admitted it.

Often, I know the speaker means well. They don't know what else to say, or they truly are complimenting (for want of better word) me for hanging in there and not falling apart. These people's sincerity, concern, and compassion is evident. When that phrase comes from their lips, I feel humbled, not worthy of their words. I shared that with a close friend, and she was perplexed. Why, she asked, do I feel unworthy? She reminded me that I've sold a hard-to-sell home, found a full-time job in a market hit especially-hard by the economy, have moved twice as I've started over in a new town, etc., and I can only say that I merely did what had to be done. Every day -- and many, many days it was more like every hour, every minute, even -- I've simply relied on my faith, concern for my children's well-being, and the love of family and friends to do nothing more than the next thing that needed to be done, and then the next, and the next.

Other times -- much less often, thank goodness -- the speaker oozes compassion and concern, but sincerity? It just doesn't seem to be there. Perhaps I'm not being fair, but when they pause, lean close, and their eyes have more of a predatory gleam, I feel as if their words were just a prompt they hope will cause me to open up and share with them anything negative that has happened. Not because they care, but because they can share it with others. All in the nature of showing their "concern", of course.  There, I've admitted that as well. Yes, sometimes I've doubted a person's sincerity.

I try not to dwell on the other person's motive or possible agenda. Instead, I try very hard to stammer out a response that is equal parts honesty and comfortably shared at that given time. The first year or so after my husband passed away, the response was often just a mumbled "thank you", as I tried not to fall apart. As time has passed, I've gotten better at saying something like "thank you, but I'm just doing what many, many other people do -- I just kept taking the next step." Some days, though, I revert to the mumbled "thank you"; it's all I can muster.

I know I'm not alone. A friend and former coworker told me that when her daughter  died from leukemia at age 4 over 15 years ago, she became enraged when people said things like "Oh, she's in heaven now and not suffering. And you and Tom still have Joey." One time, she said, her mother-in-law wisely led her away from such a "comforter" before she could recover from the comment and slap the speaker. She laughed sadly when she told me about it and said, "I'm sure she meant well. I sure hope so."

But truth be told -- and perhaps only if you've lost a spouse or a child or someone else very close to you will you understand this -- sometimes the motive of the speaker just doesn't matter. Sometimes, there's that one phrase that grates on our nerves, that causes us to cringe or maybe to stiffen our back no matter who utters it. If for you there is such a phrase, I fervently hope you never hear it again.

What about you? If you've lost a loved one, particularly a spouse or a child, or if you've faced divorce or another loss that has devastated you, has there been a phrase that gets, as my fb friends say, "on your last nerve"? Is there some expression you wish would be permanently banned from the English language? Feel free to share in the comments below or in an email to me at Have you found a way to deal positively with this kind of situation? I hope you'll share your experience and any advice you can offer us as well. 




  1. Pattie, a usual, wonderful writing. I think from when we were younger we were always told to say "thank you" anytime that anyone gave a compliment. I believe in most circumstances most people don't really know what to say to us when someone passes away and they say the standard "they are in a better place." I myself have been guilty of saying that to someone. My question always is how do we know they are in a better place but our religious upbringing has taught us there is a better place. We also seem to just go forward most of the time when anything bad happens, which is what we are supposed to do. The way I was raised we never really show our true emotions to anyone. I think when someone tells you that you are strong possibly they don't think they could do all you have done in the past several years.

  2. Pattie - I have to agree with Stephanie - when someone tells you that you are strong possibly they don’t think they could do all you have done in the past several years.

    When I lost my son it was hard to see a new baby and the happiness that it brought to its family. I was blessed much later with 2 beautiful children and have made a life for myself.

    While it has not always been easy, knowing that I had the strength to get through anything through the Grace of God, I am a stronger person. I have survived the death of a child, cancer, divorce among other things and I still manage to hold my head high.

  3. What you say makes perfect sense, Steph. I know that I never knew what to say at funerals, etc., until my dad passed away, and I was on the receiving end of people's condolences. What comforted me the most was simply, "I am so sorry for your loss. Your father was a wonderful person and will be missed." From then on, I have always said something similar to a friend or family member of someone who has passed away. If I know some short (don't want to tie up the line) memory, I will share it. I remember when my dad passed away, for example, a childhood friend whose family went on vacation with ours frequently said something like, "I'm so sorry, Patti. Your dad was one of the most gentle, kind people I've ever known. I'll never forget when we were at the cabin one time, and he was my partner in Spades. We'd been getting skunked because of me and he just kept encouraging me. The next night when it was time to pick teams, he picked first, as losing adult from the previous night, and he picked me. That meant the world to me!" And I have to tell you, her comment as stayed with me and comforted me many, many times.

  4. Oh, Denise, my heart just breaks for you. You're right -- tragedy, loss, and walking through it to the other side does one of two things, I think. In your case, you became stronger. What a testimony!

  5. To be honest, I have such a "I don't want to hear it again" phrase: I could never do this. I hear it so often and I still don't "get it". Why do people say this? Obviously I can conclude this myself as I see that the person hasn't done what I did. I don't ask them to do what I did and I'm quite sure nobody else does. The things I did and do, I do them because I want to. I don't care if somebody else does it - to be honest. And yes, I also doubt the person's intent, as this phrase is usually the introduction to because & but's.

  6. I've heard that one a few times, too, Daniela. In my case, I've done them because really, what was the option? Sometimes, I even almost felt as if the comment was veiled criticism. For example, my husband passed away on a Wednesday, the funeral was Saturday, and I returned to work the following Monday. It was the 2nd week of the semester, if I wasn't there students were cheated out of what they were entitled to, etc., and to be honest, I needed to be busy. Someone said to me later, "You're really strong. I couldn't have done that (meaning go back to work)." But the way she said it -- coupled with the fact that I'd heard she'd made some gossipy comments elsewhere -- indicated to me that she really meant I didn't grieve properly or long enough or something. People simply have no idea.