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Thursday, November 29, 2012

If You're Here to Help, You're in the Wrong Place

People, especially people who care about you, always come with the best of intentions. People want to help, they want to make you feel better when you're sick or sad or lonely. And usually that's great. It's awesome to have people around you to help you out, lift you up, or make you smile. But there are times when trying to make someone feel better is the worst thing you could possibly do.

I'm going to tell you a sad story. It's made up of as many pieces and parts as I could gather from different people at different times. If you're familiar with it, skip to the end. If not, I'm going to keep it brief because my hands still shake and my throat burns whenever I think about this. A little more than a week ago three young people set out to drive home for Thanksgiving. One boy and two girls, all over 18. The boy, Taylor, and one of the girls, Bailee, had recently become engaged. Recently meaning earlier that day. They were happy and excited and in love. The other girl, Madie, was Taylor's younger sister, also happy and excited. They were all good people, the kind of people that make you smile when you see them because the light around them seems a little brighter. The word "vibrant" means full of energy and enthusiasm, and if you needed a visual aid, Madie especially was the person to look at.

Blame any grammar or spelling errors on shaky hands and bleary eyes. They were in a car accident. Baliee was largely unhurt. Taylor was badly injured and for a while after it wasn't clear if he was going to survive. Madie's funeral is this Saturday.

Taylor is going to be all right, but he's going to have tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt. He and Bailee are still engaged, and if you want to help these incredible people, you can click the link below and donate to help offset some of the financial costs of this accident.

Morris Family Assistance Fund

I could spend the rest of this blog post talking about Madie, an amazing person and friend and how knowing her even as little as I do made me smile. Every time. I could talk about dealing with grief and how last week I've spent hours in my front yard cleaning, sweeping, and weeding the path in my front yard that she and several other teenagers helped to build just because she helped build it. But I'm not. Instead, I'm going to address the rest of my blog to everyone in the whole world who has ever had to interact with someone who is trying to deal with a loss.

This is how I help. This is how I'm going to do a good deed for everyone everywhere. I'm going to be a jerk and tell you exactly what I think needs to be said. I've had some experience with loss, losing friends, losing important relatives, losing a sister when I was young, and being very afraid that I was losing my mind (not exaggerating- do a google or wikipedia search for some of the more "fun" symptoms of narcolepsy like hypnagogic hallucinations  or sleep paralysis). I was pretty seriously picked on by some of my cousins growing up, and the two people I could count on for unconditional love and protection was my Grandpa Foutz (who was the inspiration for Thane's Grandpa Whitaker, knock knock jokes and all) and my dog Poochie (whose unfortunate name was not my fault.) My Grandpa died on October 10th, 1990 of a heart attack. I remember that because his viewing was held two days later on my 10th birthday. Within that week, we also had to put Poochie to sleep because of his medical issues. This was all after my little sister died, a loss I still feel.

I'm not sharing this for your pity or your sympathy, I'm telling you this so that when you read the rest of this post you will 1) know I'm serious, 2) not be offended, and 3) once again, know I'm serious. Because you, the well meaning person who knew and cared, might be going to say something unbearably stupid and painful to someone you are trying to cheer up. I want to spare both you and that person.

There are lots of platitudes and trite but true phrases that people use to try and bring peace or hope to someone who is grieving. I'll go into a list in a minute, but let me tell you all something up front. SHUT. UP. If you are trying to give someone peace or make them feel better, your intent is noble and your timing is wrong. Being left behind is painful, and nothing you say will make that lessen. People have to hurt first, and trying to take away that hurt (because after all, making someone feel better is doing exactly that) means that you are getting in the way of grief. LET THEM GREIVE. That doesn't mean leave them alone, but it does mean shut up. There isn't anything you can say, because everything is geared towards helping people gain peace and perspective and those come in time but now is not the time. If you must say something, stick to talking about the person you are there to honor and remember. Tell funny stories about them, talk about how they affected you.

But do not, please, under any circumstances, use any of the following phrases. Do not say the person whose funeral this is, is better off. We know this world is a hard, cruel place. This is not the time to remind us how hard and cruel this world can be, and realize also that this phrase, "better off," allows the person to infer that you mean without them. That isn't true. They aren't "better off" without us. They miss us too. At this moment, in this suffering of grief, "better off" is only applicable to someone who had a wasting and terrible illness, or who has lived a very long and very full life and has been waiting to go on. And even then only maybe.

Don't ever say "the sun will still rise tomorrow" or "time heals all wounds" or "just give it time." The last is the best of the three, because it at least doesn't insult the grief. But they don't mean anything. They don't fix anything. It's true, the pain and the reasons will be clearer and the peace will come in weeks or months or years, but the time it takes to gain the perspective hasn't passed yet and so talking about it is more painful than helpful. Don't. I remember a specific conversation with my own dad, who is a kind and awesome person. He told me that the sun would rise tomorrow. I told him that I wished it wouldn't, because it felt more like an insult than assistance. The idea that life goes on is painful and damaging to hear when you're experiencing real grief. Back off.

Do not talk about Madie in the past tense. Madie isn't gone. She's gone ahead. We haven't lost her, we've just been separated for a while and that hurts because the separation is so definite. Even missionaries get to write home and call twice a year. And now she is the best new missionary recruit to those spirits in prison, but that doesn't mean it isn't an adjustment for her. We don't know how much, because we have no experience with it. But every person who has gone ahead gets to come back, and we don't know when that's going to be. Maybe in another two thousand years, sure, but maybe it's tomorrow. But again, she isn't gone.

All these phrases make it feel like we have to move on. We don't. Sometimes loss hurts so much it's hard to breathe. And that's the way it should be. The depth of our grief is not a direct correlation to how much we loved her- the time it takes to start healing is not a set number of days or weeks or years. It is okay to hurt. It is okay to be in pain and to feel lost because in a very real way, we are. We spend our days assuming the people around us are going to be around us tomorrow and plan accordingly. The people who matter the most we plan around the most. When they are suddenly removed, they leave that hole where they used to fit. And then nothing else fits. So don't try to make people feel better about it. Try to let them know you understand, or if you don't, just let them know that it's okay to hurt. Because it is. Don't try to fix that or take it away.

Another one I always disliked was the trite but true "God has a plan." Yes He does. And as the Author and Finisher of our faith, He knows best. But saying that He has a plan is like saying the grass is green or sometimes it rains when it's cloudy. We know it's true, it doesn't help right now and there's no way to respond to it.

And it always particularly annoyed me because I felt that somewhere in this phrase it implied that my grief or my pain was the result of a lack of faith. Yep. Look at it again. You're trying to make me feel better by saying that this was part of God's plan, right? Which means that this ache is fighting against that plan, or at least complaining about it. And you're also telling me that somehow this death, this loss, was His idea. And you know what? I don't think it was.

I'm going to diverge a little here into something I'll call "The Book of Angie." I'm stealing the phrase from a friend I love dearly who's a physical therapy assistant. Her patients ask her for advice, but she's not a doctor. She has a lot of practical knowledge but not the definitive right to give prescriptions or treatment plans. So she has her "Book of" herself, where she gives her patience the advice they're asking for under the umbrella of "this is not a doctor's advice and if the doctor's advice ever conflicts, go with the doctor."

My book is how I see the world, and how I understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not believe that our Heavenly Father makes bad things happen. I believe He allows our agency and our agency causes problems for other people. I also believe that in His omniscience and omnipotence (all knowledge and all power) that He can find ways to make good things happen that would not have happened if the bad thing didn't open the way for it. And sometimes there are just tragedies. He didn't do it, He is not okay with making us hurt and He will do everything He can (which is actually everything) to make this all better in the end. So don't talk to me about His plan, because this pain and suffering is not His fault. He will figure it out and make everything all right eventually, and He is incredibly happy to have our loved one back, but I get to be bitter right now that I have been left behind and it hurts. Because that's part of the plan too. Hurting. Because hurting is part of loving.

So please, please, all of you who care about the people who love Madie, or anyone who has to talk to someone who has recently been left behind, please understand that it isn't about trying to make anyone feel better. There's a movie about my favorite author, C.S. Lewis. That movie is called "The Shadowlands." In it, Jack (C.S. Lewis' nickname) falls in love with a woman who has cancer (this is a true story). There's a part in the movie when they're talking about her having cancer and Jack is very angry at the prospect of losing her. She says, "The pain then is part of the happiness now. That's the deal." At the end of the movie, Jack repeats the line but with a change, saying, "The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal." We don't need to feel better. We need the pain now. And all you other people who care, who matter, you're still here. Which means you aren't terribly relevant to the pain now, unless you are also suffering it.

I startled Madie the first time I met her. I'd heard a lot about her from both her older brother's family, who was in my ward at the time, and from the young women I worked with. When someone introduced me to her I think I actually squealed and threw my arms around her, because she was exactly the way I'd pictured her. Not the calmest first impression, but she hugged me back right away. That's what you can do, if you're there on Saturday. Now is not the time for figuring things out, or feeling better. Now is the time for love and support by physical presence.

If you absolutely have to say something or your head is going to explode, I will give you two things that you may say if you mean them. Number one, "I'm here if you want to talk." That's it. Don't add anything. This tells the sufferer that they aren't alone, and it also gives them something they are sorely lacking. Any kind of control. That's why the word "want" is important, not "need." But you can't say it if you aren't serious about it.

Number two is even harder. It can feel awkward or out of place. But you can talk about the person who's gone ahead. You can share your favorite story, especially if it's funny. Talk about how you met. Talk about your favorite thing about them. It feels so taboo, but it shouldn't. It serves several purposes. It reminds the person to whom you are speaking that they aren't alone in their grief. Misery loves company, but not because misery is a sadistic jerk. Because people who are hurting can have that pain validated by others who are also in pain. And it gives them permission to also talk about it.

If you want to help more than that, make a donation. It'll help you feel better, too.

Morris Family Assistance Fund

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sickness and Self-Promotion

WARNING: IF YOU HAVE A WEAK STOMACH, SKIP TO THE SECOND PARAGRAPH. I hate being sick. And the worst part of it isn't throwing up; it's the few minutes after you've thrown up, when your mouth is coated in bile and some of it has gone up your nose so all you taste and smell is everything you just puked. Is that really necessary? And you rise your mouth out with water and blow your nose three or four times before the lingering bile starts to dissipate. So you drag your sweaty self back to bed and miserably and hold the futile hope that you won't have to do it again.

Bah. Two and a half days of feeling awful. Throwing up and other unfortunate bodily functions of illness, in addition to being drawn out and tired. Really tired. I think I've been spoiled- being able to take my narcolepsy medication and getting restful sleep has made me forget just how tired I am when I can't take my medicine. Ah the endless paradox of narcolepsy- always sleeping, never at rest. 

AND now we're past the pity party. Apparently I should stick to writing novels when I'm sick, because blog posts just devolve into whining. That first paragraph was written yesterday, the second was nine hours ago, and now it's Sunday night just after putting the kids to bed and I'm feeling much more like myself. I've eaten (and kept it down! Woot!) and I'm drinking gallons of Gatorade to re-hydrate myself and all-in-all feeling much better. I'm going to get a good long night of sleep and then spend a solid two hours tomorrow morning with my favorite music playlist and at least two bottles of Lysol before any of the preschool kids get here. Thank heavens I live where it's still warm at the end of November, because all my windows are going to be open tomorrow morning. This house needs to air out. And it's going to get it! 

A big thank you to all of my preschool parents who went in together last year and bought me On Guard and a diffuser. Love it. You'll smell it tomorrow.

I've spent the last three weeks beating my head against the wall of self-publishing and trying to get the word out about my book. It's hard. It's an uphill battle, and a little part of me hates myself every time I tweet or update my facebook status and it's all about my book and buy my book and recommend my book! and it all feels so disingenuous. Ironically it is completely genuine- my book is great, it is worth reading, and if someone else had written it I would honestly recommend it to others to read, although not with such frequency. But sadly, I am not of myself famous. Therefore the mediums I have access to are few, and the people with whom I can directly communicate are also relatively few. So I must continue to pursue every avenue of self-promotion that I can think of, and I'm running out of easy ideas.

The best idea is, of course, a book tour. And I'm working on setting one up in January, where I would go to schools in Utah, Idaho, and Oregon and give a presentation about being an author. Then I would read the prologue and first chapter, and hand out bookmarks. It's a lot to set up, especially since I have to make sure that my own kids are taken care of getting to and from school and having somewhere safe to go until my husband gets off work. It sounds like lots of fun, and I want to read at schools in the area, too, but those don't take as much advanced planning. More permission, but not as much planning. Less planning because I live here, so all I have to worry about is getting done before school's out. More permission because I don't actually know anyone who works for the school district or in any of the schools other than the elementary where my kids go. I don't have an "in" or know who to call. But I would love to go and inspire more kids to read!

Which all sounds like great fun, but gets in the way of what I really want to be doing. Writing. I haven't worked on book two of this series in weeks because the marketing and promotion of The Darkest Lie has been taking all my spare time and energy. Honestly more than all my spare energy, because my arthritis and my fibromyalgia have been on overdrive ever since my book published. Stress related? UM, YES. I feel like since the moment my book went live on Kindle on November 7th I've been working two full time jobs in addition to being a mom and a wife and a homemaker. My hands nearly vibrate they shake so much and I haven't had the physical strength in my wrists to open a jar in over two weeks. And my poor church calling; I love what I do, working with the young women, but I've been to church once this month and not to any activities because by about 5:00 every day I'm worthless as a person and by Saturday I'm so shaky and achy that I have a hard time standing up. Is it worth it?

Yesterday I got a text from my dad. This is what it said. "I just finished reading your book. Angie, you amaze me. Your book amazes me. It brought me to tears various times as I read, realizing you had written it. It completely enthralled me. Thank you so much for being you. I am so proud of you, and I love you!" 

Firstly, my papa is awesome. Beyond awesome. If you don't believe me, check youtube.

Secondly, yes, it's worth it. I've talked before about why I wrote this book, and what I wanted to say. That we are not alone, never alone, and there are people all around us who want to help and lift us up. That was this book. I don't know if I've mentioned that this is the first in a series of four books that I'm writing. The next one is called "The Sound at the Edge," and I'm hoping to have it finished and out by June. The series as a whole deals with loneliness and the lie of being alone, but even more it carries the theme of loss and trials, and how with every setback or pain we face, we have the choice of how to respond. 

In "The Darkest Lie," the character of Iselle is talking to Thane after he's gone through a traumatic training experience. She shares this story with him. (It's important to know that she is 16 and from France). Some of Thane's reactions have been omitted for spoiler reasons, but her story is intact.

She spoke for several sentences before the cadence of her voice and the gentleness of her unfamiliar accent was able to pull enough of his focus to actually hear her words.

 "… vineyard in Bordeaux. Many men worked for my father. Two of them were the best. One was my father’s foreman, who had apprenticed at the vineyard and stayed. One of them, Alphonse, was aveugle, was blind from his birth and had lived his whole long life in our valley. They both knew when the grapes were most ripe, and which vines were most heavy and ready for harvest. They brought the best and most sweet grapes to my father, who made cheap wine of their offering." Thane fought to breathe, and listened.

"A fever swept through our small village. Many were sick, some died. Some were left disfigured or maimed by the disease. My father’s foreman became aveugle, the sight burned out of his eyes. He could not see even the smallest light. He would not leave his bed, and he ordered the windows to be shuttered and barred. He became bitter and angry, and was violent towards those who would try to help him."

Thane realized that one of his hands was shaking and that his other was captured within both of Iselle's. His fist was wrapped inside her almost timid fingers, while her thumbs stroked the knuckles and made small circles on the back of his hand. He didn't feel the flush of warmth and louder heartbeat like when Remi had taken his hand, but he felt the fear draining away and right now that meant more. With every word she spoke the memories and nightmares sunk deeper and further away.

"Alphonse continued to work, to bring grapes to my father. My father joked of making the old blind man the new foreman and letting the young blind man drive himself to l’enfer. Many did not think his jokes were funny…" she trailed off for a moment, and in Thane's mind the images flared back to life.

"My father’s foreman tried to return to work, but could not find the vineyard," Iselle’s quiet voice cut across the clamor in his mind and Thane’s attention was drawn to her again. She was still looking down at his hand. "Two men, both blind, one made excellent and one made a fool. My father’s foreman tried to kill himself, but could not find a rope to hang himself with. Could not buy a gun to shoot himself with. No one would lead to the river to drown himself. Any way he tried to end his despair was taken from him and he was made to go on. His family, people he loved, would tell him, ‘Ce n'est pas le plus mauvais, it isn’t so bad, think of Alphonse; he has been blind his whole life and he goes on. He never has had what you had. Aren’t you béni, aren’t you blessed to have had sight at all?"

Thane tensed. Was she giving him a lecture? Telling him to man up, at least he wasn't dead, just like his father had done? But that man was not his father. The anger tried to claw its way out of the pit and Thane felt those claws dig in and pull him down.

"They did not know they were being cruel." Her words stopped his anger, made the claws release and the fury fall back. "To lose something you did not recognize, that is nothing. To have something taken that we value, that destroys us. It is not what we lose, it is how." Thane's fear surged; he loathed pity, and was afraid to see it in her. When he glanced up at her, she was looking at him, but there was no pity in her face. Instead there was anger, and defiance. Perhaps even a trace of her own fear.

"You and I have lost much and had much taken from us. Things that all children should have were rarely ours, and we understood their value. And now you are having what few things remained to you ripped away." He shuddered at her choice of words and her thumbs stopped making their small circles. The surcease of motion drew his eyes back to hers, brown with flecks of gold. "When every way to forget your loss is taken, how do you move on?"
This section, this story, was the inspiration for the entire series, and the entire series tries to answer that question. I wrote that originally as part of a short story for a writing exercise, but it stuck with me. That question stuck with me. How do we move on from loss, from pain, from fear or trauma or tragedy?

One verse of scripture that has most guided my life comes from The Book of Mormon. I can't say it's a favorite, because it doesn't inspire faith or warmth within me, but it has stuck with me very powerfully ever since I first remember reading it and being old enough to understand what it meant. It's in Alma, chapter 62, verse 41. It says, "But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility."

Through the rest of the series, bad things keep happening. Good things do too. More good than bad, but usually many many small good things and one or two really large bad things, the way life is. And the characters in the story suffer loss, and pain, and have to respond to it. And they respond differently. Some respond by becoming hardened and bitter. Some respond with gratitude and humility. A few start with the hardening and progress to humility. One or two go the other way. But with every experience I want to highlight the choice- we decide how we live our lives. We have the power to choose to act or react. 

So it's worth it, because there is so much loss and pain and trauma in the world already. There is so much loneliness and so much despair, simply because there are so many who don't know how to choose hope. Loss should never be diminished or made light of- even with all we know about life after death and the promise of eternal families, losing someone we love hurts. It's supposed to. Few things hurt worse than being left behind and being denied the companionship of someone who matters for the rest of our time here on earth. But I want to tell every child, every teen, every person who has ever suffered that their suffering is VALID, their pain MATTERS, and that while it will always be a part of them, it doesn't DEFINE them. And they never have to suffer alone.

So it's worth it. Every sickness. Every ache and pain. Every time I have to make my son a cheese sandwich instead of PB&J because my wrists won't open the PB or J jars. And every time I hate myself a little for tweeting, "Hey, I sold over 100 books this week! #TheDarkestLie, the best gift for every reader on your Christmas list!" because this is the thing I want to tell the world. And this is the price I pay for sharing that message.

Thank heavens I still get to whine about it. And so you all know, The Darkest Lie is on sale at Barnes and Noble .com this week for only $10.69, which is cheaper than you can even buy it through me. And it really is a great book. Just ask anyone who's related to me! :)