It’s difficult to know what to say or how to respond to someone who’s upset. Being with someone who is angry or sad can be uncomfortable, especially when there isn’t an obvious answer or solution. As the person who wants to console someone who is upset, it’s a reminder that we’re only human and we don’t have the power to rectify every issue that life brings. It’s a reminder of our own vulnerability to pain and loss.
I can say that as a therapist, even though helping people deal with emotional pain is an inherent part of providing mental health services, I experience discomfort when I can’t offer a solution to someone. I can’t undo someone’s traumatic experience. I can’t bring a loved one back from the dead. I can’t put a broken relationship back together as it once was. Maybe I can help someone take something that’s fallen apart and reshape it into something new, but there’s still a loss that has to be grieved and hopefully accepted, and even a loss that’s accepted leaves a void. If I don’t tolerate my own discomfort, I can’t expect a client to learn to tolerate and cope with theirs. My sadness and discomfort give me a glimpse into what the client is experiencing so I can better meet their needs as their therapist.
In some ways it’s different, and in some ways it’s the same when it’s someone in my personal life who’s in a bad place for whatever reason. It’s not necessarily my responsibility to guide them towards a solution, but even so, I still wish I could because no one likes to see someone they care about feeling bad. I still wish I had the right thing to say to make them feel better, although, I always try to remember that sometimes there isn’t anything to say at all. Sometimes, it’s OK to just be there and listen because sometimes just feeling heard and understood is enough. To have a friend who cares enough to sit with you while you cry or rant is a great thing. To have a friend who cares enough to just sit with you so you don’t feel so alone in your pain is something we should all be so lucky to have.
Most of us have been upset about diabetes and needed some understanding and support. Many of us have also been in a position to offer understanding and support to someone we knew was frustrated. I try to give encouragement when I know one of my DOC friends is having a bad D day, and I’ve received more encouragement and kind words than I can even quantify. It’s great to be heard, it’s nice to feel understood, and as always, knowing others who “get it” makes such a difference in living with diabetes. It seems that expressing anger, sadness or frustration about life with diabetes occasionally elicits some less than helpful, albeit well-intentioned comments though, which is troubling to me because comparable comments for other heartaches that life brings would be unthinkable.
If someone’s friend dies, is it OK to say, “Don’t feel so bad! At least it wasn’t your child/spouse/parent!”?
If someone were to need their foot amputated, a fear with which most of us can likely identify, would it be OK to say, “Well at least they only cut off your foot, and not your whole leg!” or “At least you still have your other foot!”?
Would you say to someone with a form of cancer that has a high recovery rate, breast cancer for example, “Be grateful you have breast cancer, and not liver cancer!”?
So why is it OK to say to someone who is having a hard time with their diabetes, “At least it’s not cancer!”? In any of the aforementioned scenarios, would those statements be true? Would it really be better to lose one foot rather than two? I think so. Would it be better to watch my friend die than my husband? Well, if I had to choose, I’d be more devastated if Jason died. Do you say those things though? Gosh, I hope not because those aren’t sensitive, comforting, empathetic responses.
It has always bothered and boggled me that people compare diabetes and cancer. It bothers me that there are sometimes heated online debates about which is worse. I’ve never had cancer. I’ve had friends with cancer. I had a friend who died of liver cancer just short of being 5 years clean of breast cancer. My grandfather died of cancer when my mom was all of 6 years old. I’ve also known people who’ve had it, beaten it, and not had any recurrences. I’ve never had an up-close and truly personal experience with cancer, but even if I had, I don’t think it’s my place to compare the two. From my limited perspective of only knowing life with diabetes, they seem like different brands of suck. Ask other people though, amd I think the general consensus is that cancer is worse, but why does it even matter? What on earth is the point of comparing them? At the end of that argument, is there a winner? “Yay! I win! I have the worst disease!”
So why do people say, “At least you don’t have cancer”, to people with diabetes? Maybe there are people who take solace in that, but I find it kind of insulting and demeaning because I think the implied message is that I don’t have a right to feel bad about having diabetes. Most of the time, I’m actually pretty grateful for diabetes, or at least all the positive things that have come of it. I work really hard to foster a positive attitude in myself, and I hope I can inspire the same in others, although I know I’m not Suzy Sunshine about diabetes all the time. However, on those occasions when I get down about it, haven’t I earned the right to be angry, sad, frustrated or fearful because diabetes is a lot more rotten than it looks on the surface? Isn’t there something more helpful to say than reminding me I don’t have another awful disease?
Maybe it’s true that we should all be glad we don’t have cancer. Whether that’s the case or not, I’d like to suggest that there are better things to say to someone who’s having a bad D day, who’s been riding the BG roller-coaster, feels like crap, and just wants a reprieve from the glucose tabs and fog or dry mouth and lethargy, someone who’s in a panic because they’ve found themselves out and about without emergency sugar or back-up pump supplies or test strips, someone who is just tired of the constant misunderstandings about what diabetes is and how it’s managed, or someone who can’t tolerate wasting another minute of their life on the phone arguing with their insurance company. Just because our disease isn’t as bad as another doesn’t mean we deserve to be blamed, judged and ridiculed. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be grateful or feel blessed all the time, sometimes or ever. If I do say so myself, I think that’s just a ridiculous expectation to place on top of all the other expectations that come with managing diabetes 24/7.
What do you say to someone who really doesn’t want to be told, “At least it’s not cancer!”? How about, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time with your diabetes”, “I can imagine how monotonous and frustrating it gets”, “We all have bad days with diabetes, so remember you’re not alone.” Minimizing someone’s emotional reaction to having a life-long disease that requires more of the patient than most other diseases is not supportive. Invalidating a pretty legitimate and justified emotional response to a pretty tiresome and scary disease is thoughtless and insenstive.
It’s not cancer, but it’s diabetes, and it sucks. A lot. Offer compassion, sensitivity, or kind words. Or don’t say anything because sometimes we just want to be heard and understood, and not made to feel like we don’t have a right to be upset that we have a chronic, incurable disease. At the very least, we deserve that.
* Just a reminder that I’m donating money to two of my favorite diabetes organizations, Behavioral Diabetes Institute for every comment I receive this month, and Diabetes Hands Foundation for every click I get on November 14th, World Diabetes Day.