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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Art of Condolence

I have been struggling with what to say. The child of a colleague has undergone neurosurgery, and at least initially post-operatively, is quite impaired. Something to say usually comes naturally for me. Then again, so does thinking deep thoughts about how and when and what to say. In the end, this time I have come up short.The situation is complicated by the fact that I have been in these shoes myself, so my first thoughts were about what was not helpful to me rather than what was. People who asked about my "problem" drove me crazy (and I was already not myself)--this is not a problem, this is a catastrophe! So my first approach was to acknowledge that, and move on with words of wisdom. I did get some of those from those around me, and they were appreciated in the initial period of shock, but became gold once the full measure of what I faced was before me.
The most valuable lesson I learned came from more of an acquaintance than a friend. Her youngest daughter was born with a genetic disorder that is both rare and fatal. She took 2 years off from work to live with, nurture and care for, and then bury her daughter. She had sinced moved away from our community, but was back in town when we got out of the hospital, and she insisted on bringing over a meal. It was the wisest thing I received the whole year, and one of the nicest meals (especially when you consider that she cooked it in a friend's kitchen and had to purchase Tupperware to bring it to our house). In addition to the meal, she included a nice flowering potted plant, and a letter about what she had learned from her experience with her child. She warned me that we would quickly become the expert on our child's illness--that our investment in finding solutions for him would be so much greater than anyone on his treatment team. She warned us this is not always well-recieved by the professionals, and that we needed to develop useful ways to interact with them, so as to get the most from them, as well as the opportunities we could engineer. Everything she predicted--the truths, the pitfalls, the solutions, and the challenges--all came to pass, and I have thanked her a thousand times since for her wisdom and for sharing it. So this may be my second step towards showing condolences.

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