Do you say what you see?

When you ‘see’ something on another child – do you mention it? Does it make a difference if the family are struggling or not?

“She won’t speak to anyone … or even make eye contact” my friend confided in me “she behaves well at school – but when she comes home, her rages are unbelievable”.

So what do I say? I take a breath. They are distressed and I should be brave. I tell them my stories. Explain that I have no qualification to armchair-diagnose – but that our story ended up titled ‘autism’.

My friend listened politely. Very politely. Sympathised with the painful parts of our journey. The conversation was never referred to again.

I wanted to reach out to my friend to not withhold information, but in her eyes I saw a flicker of … lost innocence in our friendship. That she felt judged and watched on her kids behaviour, when before she’d been able to believe it didn’t see because there was nothing to see. When she left, I went straight to see my daughter. My own conscience wasn’t easy. I had to ask her if she minded me sharing her story with people who were strangers to her over coffee morning chit chat.

Did I do the right thing to speak?

Empathy with illness.

Feverish and nauseous? A clumsy idiot.

We backtrack and ask firstborn to apologise; to desist; to understand that this really isn’t the right time to swipe at a sibling. An hour later, and ‘backtracking’ is more like ‘reversing back along the whole bleeding lane’.

We’ve had the attitude, we’ve had the wisecracks and it’s becoming clear that actually she’s finding it very hard to put into words how someone with ‘flu (or any other illness) would be feeling and would like to be spoken to.

My husband took the lead on the chat listing the kids’ ideas for ‘do-s and don’t-s’ on how to speak to an ill person. It got a good conversation going, but firstborn was clearly finding it hard work.

I googled furiously hoping for resources to ‘break it down into bite size chunks’. I didn’t find any resources – so here is a description of how I approached it. (At some point I should learn SEO so that someone else might find this when they are googling furiously trying to think of a plan!).
I asked firstborn (a young teen) to brainstorm three sheets. The first sheet was different illnesses she knew, and how they might make you feel. The second was to answer the question of ‘Why do we treat ill people differently, and what happens if we don’t’. The third sheet was again asking for ‘do and don’t’ ideas, with explanations, that I wanted to make into a palm sized reference flick book for future use.

It was a bit of a struggle – very slow going – she didn’t have a lot of experience to draw on (thankfully being healthy). I’ve asked her to read ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ – and I might try to steer the next discussion into a bit of a book club kind of chat about the feelings of the characters arising from their illness.

I’d love any other ideas in the meantime for how to coach teens on the right things to say around illness. Ironically – she actually is good around seriously ill people – takes time for them, doesn’t flap and is appreciated. But she equally can come out with outrageously rude and insensitive statements that can cause serious offence.

Truthfully, though, I’m not sure any of us empathise with illness. We can be socially conditioned to behave correctly – but that is all it is. Pain is only remembered in reflection and only understood in experience.