“Wow! You look great! You look just the same!”
In the early days, that was a fairly typical greeting from those who had not seen me for a while. While some might assume that this is a thoughtful and flattering comment to offer a freshly-diagnosed heart attack survivor, many times it didn’t feel that way.
Surprised? Many people, especially in the early days, weeks and months while still reeling emotionally and physically from their life-altering cardiac train wreck, tell me that they often feel like replying to such greetings with:
“I am NOT the same!”
Instead of the well-meant but oddly niggling “You look great!” – what might be more helpful to the freshly-diagnosed heart patient?
First, the urge to say something comforting and encouraging to somebody with heart disease or any other chronic and progressive illness seems like a natural, kind-hearted gesture. But my heart sisters tell me that they suspect these comments more often reflect the relieved feelings of the speaker rather than the fabulousness of our actual appearance.
Friends and family alike can feel apprehensive that we might look very sick and very different, and that this dreadful appearance will make them feel awkward or uncomfortable just being around us. What will they say? How will they react if we look or sound really bad, if we don’t look “the same”?
It’s a similar reaction observed in end-of-life care: bereaved people are often told by well-meaning friends and relatives, in particularly chirpy tones, how “Great!” they look – this after the death of somebody they love. It can be hard to know just how to respond to such an irrelevant assessment of something as trivial as your outward appearance when you are grieving. Most people simply try to be gracious, smile gamely, and say: “Thank you.”
Particularly for women (who are socialized from birth about the over-importance of looking good), it can seem natural to make a comment about how others look.
Similarly, when others see me now, walking/talking/smiling – looking and sounding pretty much like my old self – no wonder they may gush in a tremendous flood of relief:
“Wow! You look great! You look just the same!”
What these gushers may not appreciate is how long it has likely taken me on a bad day to look “the same”, how much effort and exhaustion this has meant, what I’ve gone through just to run a comb through my stringy hair or brush my teeth – and don’t get me started on taking a shower or maintaining this pasted-on little happy face in order to keep up my pleasant facade of normalcy.
Because that, above all else, is what heart patients long for: to feel normal again. Not just to look normal.
Other things to avoid saying when visiting:
- don’t start in on that endless story of your Uncle Stan and his much more interesting heart attack – heart patients simply don’t care about other people’s medical drama at this moment
- don’t try and push any life-saving miracle cures, products or supplements on us, particularly if you are selling them (this is unforgiveably tacky)
- don’t try to cheer us up if we’re having a bad day – we’re entitled to have a bad day once in a while because we’ve just had a heart attack, for Pete’s sake – and if we do confess that we are having a bad day, do not under any circumstances say: “Well, at least YOU LOOK GOOD!” – unless you want a small metal canister of nitroglycerin hurled at your head
Next time you approach a heart patient, a bereaved person grieving a loss, or those diagnosed with a chronic, progressive disease – what could you do or say instead of focusing on appearance?
One of the most helpful comments to me so far has been some variation of the simple statement:
“It’s great to see you!”
… which is probably fairly accurate, feels pretty darned good to hear, and doesn’t elicit the “If you only knew…” reply that we’re silently muttering.
Remember too that gifts of service or time are always a good idea. When I was newly home from hospital after my heart attack, I loved people who phoned and said: “I’m at the grocery store – what can I pick up for you here?”
One friend came over and planted all my summer annuals for me because she knew I was not able to do that; another called to say he was coming over to wash and vacuum my car.
Bring a heart-smart casserole, homemade soup, vegetarian chili, or (best idea ever!) a big fresh salad when you drop over. If you’re not a cook, splurge on a special magazine that you know the freshly-diagnosed heart patient likes. If you can’t afford that, bring a stack of library books selected just for her (one of my neighbours, for example, brought over a dozen gorgeous library books on flower-arranging, which she knew was a keen interest of mine – and then made a plan to return them all to the library for me when they were due in three weeks).
Keep your visits brief – just making conversation, even with people we love, can be exhausting for us, especially at the beginning of our recovery.
For an enlightening perspective on what it’s like to live with a chronic illness, visit the But You Don’t Look Sick? website to read Christine Miserandino’s powerful personal essay called ‘The Spoon Theory‘. She uses a handful of restaurant teaspoons to illustrate to a friend her limited reserves of energy (spoons) that must be carefully planned and counted out to get her through an average uneventful day. Christine’s unique Spoon Theory helps to explain what is very difficult for the healthy to understand: how utterly exhausting it can be to get through the simplest of tasks when she’s having a bad day. In Christine Miserandino’s case, her chronic diagnosis is lupus, but she could well be speaking for heart patients, too.
Though battling a shopping list of debilitating symptoms since the age of 15, Christine has consistently been told, by both well-wishers and doctors alike: “But you don’t look sick!?” as if that were some kind of compensation for being chronically ill. Worse, the words somehow imply that she can’t possibly be as ill as she claims, given her “normal” physical appearance. See also: When We Don’t Look As Sick As We Feel
It’s almost enough to make you wish some days that you wore a neck brace, a leg cast or some other visible outward sign that something’s not quite right.
Many times, not looking “sick” makes it harder to validate a medical condition that nobody else can see.
© Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org
- “But You Don’t Look Sick…“
- Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis
- ‘Healthy Privilege’ – When You Just Can’t Imagine Being Sick
- Why You Should Not Ask: “How Are You Feeling Today?”
- Ten Helpful Things To Say To A Sick Friend
- What Not to Say When Visiting the Sick