Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Define "Handle"! @#$%

I'm driving to work this morning and listening to NPR. And if you're a fan or occasional listener then you know that they frequently have interviews that last much longer than the shocking sound bite, and there is little yelling over top of another guest. The hosts were talking to individuals who were struggling with finances and health and other big life issues. And then I hear it, another of those phrases we typically use to comfort ourselves, another of those phrases that is like your mother soothing your bruises with a "there there," another of those phrases that no longer works for me since the death of my child---"God doesn't give you anymore than you can handle."

"Define 'handle'," I yell at the radio and switch it off.

I used to think this statement was a truth, but mostly I used to hope it were true, because it said that I would always be able to succeed. I would always rise to the occasion. I would always have the skills and abilities and health to handle whatever came my way. So, how did I handle Caitlin's death?

I wailed with sounds that I've never heard before and only remember from the palpable sorrow and excruciating pain the wailing released, and those wails continued for long past the year marker of her death.

I developed a stutter with my speech that makes lectures and class discussions embarrassing and less credible to my students.

I gained over 40 pounds in the span of about 4 months.

I forgot doctor's appointments, meetings with colleagues, important document deadlines, and where I put my keys or how to dress with clothes that matched.

I wept uncontrollably at rehearsals, classes, on public transportation, and at dinners and lunches in public.

I became unable to walk in my neighborhood alone for fear of crumbling with grief or forgetting how to get home.

I've developed an annoying habit of calling my husband to see where he is or how he is and I make him promise me, like an innocent child, that he will not die.

And if you're a bereaved parent, you likely have numerous examples to add.

My belabored point? Caitlin's death was plenty that I could not handle, and my behaviors that followed her death provide clear evidence of that. Now, I know that this statement is dear to many, but it's somewhat useless to me any longer. I add it to my other not-faves of "Everything happens for a reason" and "Everything happens for the best." When your child dies and someone says these things to you, it feels like your pain and your reaction to the tragic death of your child is invalidated. Especially, when the statement is given when you are in a state of not handling it. (And what the hell does that mean anyway? How are you supposed to handle it? This whole thing is absurd, and I shouldn't even be blogging this. UGH.)

No one means for the statement to inflict pain, of course. They try to comfort in the only way they know how. They reach in and try to help in whatever way they can. And we are grateful for their efforts. I am grateful to those who have said this to me, but I didn't particularly warm to the statement in and of itself. I felt love by those who love me, but the words, I let gently fall like raindrops to the ground for something else to grow.

Unfortunately, if you let the statement in, it's not particularly comforting or helpful when what you truly need is to be held and allowed to 'handle' it the way you are handling it with sincere and honest grief--and that ought to be acknowledged. It's supposed to give one hope, that we won't always feel this bad. Well (hang on here, this may be shocking), but we ought to honor the pain we feel as a result of being separated from the life of the ones we love. We ought to acknowledge the sorrow. Offering the "handle it" hope when in deep despair without acknowledging the sorrow first feels like a verbal tissue that says, in effect "wipe up." I'm convinced that we must go through this grief and that is how we handle it.

That I am currently much stronger in carrying my grief, is what some will point to and say, "See, God doesn't give you any more than you can handle." Well, this typical 20/20 hindsight may be convenient, but it doesn't change that fact that for months and now at unexpected times and for undisclosed durations, I do have more than I can handle. And I don't handle my daughter's death particularly well at times.

As for God giving this to me---in my mind, that's crap. I simply cannot delve into it or reason this God part of the statement much further than that. My conclusion remains, that God weeps with me.

Oh, I can't stand it. There's a bible verse that states that God doesn't allow one to be tempted beyond what he or she can handle, and then invariably some bible-study expert or preacher will extend the use of "temptation to sin" to any tragedy or challenge in life. I don't wish to go all bible here, or offend my preacher and otherwise Christian friends and family, but I'll repeat--in my mind, that's crap. Comforting for some, but of no use to me.

Ah, so now that I've explored this statement and my strong reaction to it, I'd like to hear how the interviewee was handling his challenges and life struggles. But it's hours (actually days) past the airing of the interview, and so I won't hear his definition of "handle." Because for him, it might be the comforting, hopeful, motivating truth that he needs. But for me, I've filed it in the "of little use to me now" basket.


  1. No surprise...I agree with every word you wrote!

    How did I "handle it"? I thought of all the ways I could take my life. I knowingly tried to destroy my marriage and other relationships with people I love....oh I could go on & on, but I won't because you already said it all, and much more eloquently than I ever could!

    Love and peace to you.

  2. I would have been yelling right along with you if I'd heard this. "Handle" to me implies some degree of control; I think my grief handles me more than I do it, especially in those early days.

    I also hate, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

  3. Yep, I hate it those sayings too. This was a powerful post. I can really feel your conviction.

  4. I'm atheist so when someone said to me, "your boys are in a better place now, they are with God," I thought I would crawl out of my skin. I looked at the person and said, "there is no better place in the universe for my boys than here with me and their father." In one statement, this person ignore not only my religious preferences but managed to suggest that my husband and I were not worthy or capable to be parents....very eloquent post.

  5. All these platitudes do sound nice when you're dealing with a not so bad kind of bad . . . losing a job, not getting something you wanted, a minor accident.

    I got really tired of people telling me how strong I was.

  6. I'm at a loss for words because I think you said it all. I too agree with everything. I do believe in God and I do find comfort from my faith, but that does not mean I'll respond positively to anything another human says is "God's will."


  7. I agree - it's crap.

    These sorts of statements make other people feel better. These statements make them feel that there's a "reasons" for things happening -- a purpose to the horrible things -- that's it's all part of something bigger.

    I don't believe it is. It's just crap.

  8. Also, people say to me that "I must be a stronger person now" ...

    Ok, that's a big fat NO.

    The loss of my children has left me a remnant of the strong, resolute, impulsive, opinionated, caring person I once was. The new me is but a shell of her.

  9. This post totally speaks to me. I have a friend who is always very positive, and skated through her TTC journey. Then her third child was born with a birth defect that made him unable to swallow and she sent out an email that said, "I still believe everything happens for a reason and I'm trying to figure out what the reason for this may be." I wrote back to her and said: "One thing I've learned over the past few years is that sometimes bad things happen to good people for NO REASON. I also don't believe that God doesn't give you more than you can handle. What I do believe, though, is this: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."