Sunday, January 19, 2014


My shoulder started hurting for no good reason around Thanksgiving. I guess it's because I'm getting old. I told my friend Jane that I was babying it a bit because I was afraid I'd torn something, and she said, "Don't baby it! That's the worst thing you could do. You might end up with a Frozen Shoulder." She gave me exercises, which of course I didn't do.


So, this week I finally dragged myself to a doctor and found out I have....a Frozen Shoulder! Yippee! Right after giving me a shot in the shoulder and referring me to a physical therapist who would then recommend the exact same exercises Jane told me about two months ago, the doc sat down for some chit chat.

"What do you do for a living?"

I recently quit my job managing a small Christian bookstore, so I tried out something new:

"I'm a writer."

I've never said that before. It sounded strange, maybe a little bit of a stretch, but it felt good, too. I hadn't anticipated the next question, even though it was an obvious one.

"So, have you written any books?"

"Well, yes, my first book is coming out in September." Now, THAT felt great to say!

But why oh why wasn't I ready for the next question? I know I need to get used to speaking about my book. I need to not be embarrassed or ashamed about the subject matter. I need to believe that there is a reason I've been given the chance to tell my story, and that it can't help anyone if I don't share it.

Deep breath: "Well, it's a memoir about losing my son."

"Oh, I'm sorry. But I sure won't be reading it. I don't DO tragedy."

The doctor's words did not offend me. He was on the spot, in that little exam room. He had plunged into something uncomfortable and scary, when all he wanted was a few seconds of small talk. And his thoughts were not so very different from ones that I have voiced before. I mean, who wants to DO tragedy, if they can help it?

I remember that when Jack was born almost 15 years ago, I abruptly stopped watching some of my favorite shows, most notably Law and Order SVU. I just couldn't take the depravity of the world and the way it made me feel so vulnerable, especially since I had a little one to take care of now. No longer fascinated by the dark side of the human experience, I wanted to shield us from it any way I could, and covering my eyes and ears seemed like a viable option. I had to seriously limit the Oprah book club books I read, too.

I understand that the doctor doesn't want to read my book. I totally get it.

Then today, at my first physical therapy appointment, the therapist asked me how many kids I have. I had already cried when it felt like she was breaking my arm, and more tears trickled out when I said, "I used to have 2, but now I have 1." It's not what I expected to say when asked this question, as if Jack had ceased to exist in a "poof!" but it's what came out. Usually I just say "2" and leave it at that, but she and I will be seeing each other 3 times a week for a while, and I didn't want to make her feel even more awkward later with follow-up questions if I had led her to believe I had two healthy kids at home with me.

It's interesting, because in the next months, I'm going to have to figure out how to talk about what I write about. I'll have to get out behind the screen and actually talk to people. I'll be attending conferences and meeting people, and eventually promoting my book. Not only am I a horrible sales person, "Umm, you, uh, wouldn't want to buy some Girl Scout cookies, would you?" I am also reluctant to put people on the spot and make them uncomfortable.

They are such natural questions, "What do you blog about? What's your book about? How many kids do you have?" but they freak me out. The last blog conference I went to, I brought a stack of business cards that I was too chicken to give out, when people asked what I blogged about, I said, "Uh, Life," and when I wasn't hiding in my room, I tried to stick very close to people who already knew my story.

I'm thinking my honest yet awkward answers to the doctor and the physical therapist were important baby steps for me.

Do you have any suggestions? Is there a way to know if someone just wants a quick, pleasant interaction versus the truth? Do I use the same gauges I use in determining whether someone really wants to know how I'm doing or is just asking to ask?


Jules said...

It is so hard to talk about these types of things. They are raw wounds. They hurt our hearts. Our souls wish to have our loved ones back with us. I'm not in your shoes so you will know what is going to be best for you to say & what you are comfortable with. When they ask you how many kids you have, you can always say that you & your husband have been blessed with 2 children. If they probe further, then you can decide what you say. You have been blessed. Though Jack was here for too short a time, you were all lucky to know & love him. You will figure this all out. We will be here to support you. I will read your book. You are an amazing woman with a story that is hard to tell but it is an important one.

LauraBeth said...

Anna... No suggestions... Just hugs...

With love and prayers from the other side of town.

Rach said...

My gauge for a long time has been how much time will I be with this person? If it's a short interaction with small talk chit chat, I'll say I have two kids and then silently apologize. I REALLY hate making people uncomfortable, and the loss of a child...yeah, you know.

If I'm going to be seeing the person on a more regular and/or frequent basis, I just smack them over the head with Hannah. It's easier now that it's been six and a half years--we're farther from the accident. It's no longer a "recent tragedy" but instead just "family history". To others, obviously, not US.

That's all I've got. Sorry it's not more helpful. :oS

Suburban Correspondent said...

It's not about tragedy. It's about resilience, it's about the transcendental nature of love, it's about learning to say yes to life even when it grabs you by the balls (to quote our recent Facebook discussion).

Japolina said...

I think that you should just say whatever you feel like saying at the time. Honesty is always best but be prepared for honest responses like your doctor's.

Hope the shoulder feels better soon.

Sybil@PeaceitallTogether said...

These are good questions. Unfortunately, I think the answers are complicated. I still struggle talking about my son and his special needs. I can write about it all day, but when I try and talk about it, my tongue gets tied and I have no idea what to say. I think it's because face-to-face I may have to see their disbelief or answer more questions than I'm ready to answer. I just encourage you to pray about it...ask God to give you the words. And, expect that others won't know how to react. As an aside, I'm hoping that you plan to promote your book in CA :)

Joan said...

I know how difficult those casual questions can be. Even though it has been 5 1/2 years since a rare form of cancer took my older daughter's life, the grief hits me at times in unexpected situations.
Here's my answer: "I have two daughters but one has gone Home." I can usually manage to say that without falling apart.
Sending you hugs and good wishes for a quick recovery from your shoulder problems.

Anne said...

I had to quit watching SVU when I had kids too! I don't have any advice or suggestions, and I'm so sorry you have to be in this situation at all. I will definitely be buying your book though!

Unknown said...

Oh Anna, I just had this very conversation today in church with a dear older woman. She asked how I am and for the first time in a long while I gave her an honest answer. I miss my little girl desperately and I want her back. I go on, I live, I love but I still hurt like crazy. I told her that life has handled me so many challenging situations in life. The Lord has stretched me farther than I would ever have believed possible and I feel the spirit nudging me to tell others. To not keep quiet about how he has worked in my life. BUT.......I don't know how to do it. I have no doubt that as you enter into situations where you are asked to talk about your own sorrow, the words will be there. You'll be awesome.

Andrea said...

My dentist in Vienna had told me about a patient who came in before me who wrote a children's book about losing her mom. It was a book you give to a child who never met their grandma. I thought, "That's nice." Six months later I called the receptionist, asked her to call that lady and I bought the book for a pregnant friend whose mom died. You never know who may think back on you later....

Catherin said...

I think it is important to remember that the purpose of your book is to deliver a message, to offer an insight that will enlighten readers to your experience, or offer comfort through theirs.... If you focus on your message and purpose, then promoting your book will be more about "reaching out" rather than "withdrawing in" if you get what I mean. Yes, the book is about Jack, and your tragic loss and grief--but as an author, you are offering more than just a story--you are offering a piece of yourself so that others can heal, that is a powerful gift. We don't normally shy away when we give a gift--we feel joy--and so will you when you when you share your book as a gift to others.

Catherin said...

I think it is important to remember that the purpose of your book is to deliver a message, to offer an insight that will enlighten readers to your experience, or offer comfort through theirs.... If you focus on your message and purpose, then promoting your book will be more about "reaching out" rather than "withdrawing in" if you get what I mean. Yes, the book is about Jack, and your tragic loss and grief--but as an author, you are offering more than just a story--you are offering a piece of yourself so that others can heal, that is a powerful gift. We don't normally shy away when we give a gift--we feel joy--and so will you when you when you share your book as a gift to others.

Andrea Mowery said...

I am so grateful to know you, Anna, and to have heard of Jack through your loving words. It's a hard story to hear for sure. None of us 'do' tragedy. But some of us have been through it, and I think it's okay to respond with your truth when you can. xoxo

M. said...

You turned me on to HONY- some how the truth always works.

Mrs Changstein said...

I think, Anna, that you should have a couple of answers - ones that would suit different emotional states that you could be in - and that you could pull out, depending on how you're feeling.

Even though you didn't ask :) I have a shoulder issue too, and after ALOT of convincing, my husband bought us an inversion table with infrared heat (that was what finally sold me) to help me with my shoulder pain (& his back trouble). It has been amazing and made quite the difference. I was such a skeptic, but after crying like a baby after simple things like putting on a jacket, I was willing to try anything. (Our dr gave us the ok to try the inversion therapy.) I'm still going to physio, but the table is a game changer.

Donna Scott said...

I struggle with this too. I tend to agree with the person who said it depends on how long you will be in contact with the person. If it is a passing conversation with a stranger, I choose the "simple" answer. If not, I choose the more transparent answer, knowing that sometimes it will suck the life out of the room. But sometimes, it will lead to a deeper connection.

Kim said...

My friend who lost her baby at 3 mos old always tells people, "We have five children, four here with us, and one waiting for us in heaven."
It leaves it up to the person listening to dig in further or move on.
And my suggestion for when you tell people about your book, is to add one more sentence, "A memoir about losing my son....and the love, support, community, hope, faith, (whatever you feel like calling it)that has helped me face each day."
You are amazing.

SouthLakesMom said...

Anna, once when I asked a woman at a playground how many children she had she said, "two here and one in heaven."

It was so gracious because it gave ME the responsibility/freedom to ask more, or to say, "I'm so sorry about the one who's no longer here," or to whistle Dixie.

By the way, I think the doctor's answer was kinda jerky for the profession he is in. You don't need to worry about making other people uncomfortable. That's their issue.

Sherri said...

After hearing all of this, my thoughts are that God even uses your frozen shoulder and the people you deal with for a purpose. He is "growing" you little by little, step by step. Yes, you will face some difficult situations down the road when you promote your book. There will be those who say the wrong thing, even though they don't mean to. Try to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide you through these conversations. Some are uncomfortable, and you will know immediately, like your doctor. When someone is interested and inquires gently and respectfully, you will know. The most poignant and appreciated comment I received when I lost my Dad some months ago was: Would you mind telling me about him, what was he like? And this was from my massage therapist at my chiropractor's office... but it meant the world to me. I got teary, but I loved sharing what a good man and father he was. One more thing I want to mention. When my pastor talks about how many grandchildren he has, he says six, one's in heaven.(She died of a brain tumor at 6 years old a few years ago.) May 2014 be a year of renewal and refreshment in your mind, body, and spirit.

Kayme said...

It is so unfair. Difficult questions and impossible answers.
I would never say that there is a right or wrong answer - true of all aspects of life, but certainly more complicated when you have had to live through such tragedy. I lost my husband, my soulmate, my person, just shy of 19 months ago. I still wear my wedding ring, and I still answer confidently that I have a husband. I do generally follow by saying that he is just waiting for me in heaven, but sometimes I don't. Regardless, it is my truth.
About a year ago, I was (reluctantly - because I have become a hermit in this new life) letting my young son (3 at the time) play after school; I started chatting with a couple of moms that I had chatted with briefly before as well as a few moms I had never met. In conversation, not so conveniently about loss, one of the moms said that she and another one of those with us "had great dads." With tears flowing, almost immediately, I said "you HAVE great dads." To me, although they may not be on this side of heaven, they are still their dads, Bryan is still my husband, and Jack is still your son.
You are a talented, beautiful writer and I look forward to reading your book. It will be difficult, but I can only imagine the love and the hope that will be evident amidst the tragedy.
I hope your shoulder heals soon!
Godspeed :)

Michelle said...

Hi Anna, just wanted to tell you that you are so very brave and funny. Will be praying for you as you face the challenges that come with talking about your book!

Margaret E said...

Hi Anna,

I think your answers were big steps and very brave. You really put yourself out there and I think that is wonderful. Maybe people feel a little uncomfortable when they hear your answer, but it reminds us that we never truly know what the person sitting next to us has experienced or what they are feeling that day. And we can pause and be more careful of each other.

As for frozen shoulders, well I had one and now my other shoulder is doing the same thing!!! Ugh!!! I think it is the dog!!!

Be well Anna and thank you for sharing.


Peg said...

I always go with just being honest. "How many sisters do you have?" "I have four, but my older sister passed away." OR "How many kids do you have?" "We have five kids. Three boys and then we adopted my nieces after their parents died." It's taken me a long time to be able to talk about our tragedy without getting uncomfortable. I try not to make other people feel bad, but not being honest makes it seem like Jeanne and Mike didn't exist or not respecting the girls' history. p.s....personnally, I can't wait to read your book :)

Kate Coveny Hood said...

I think you handle these things so don't need advice. You tell the truth and then show grace no matter what the response. Just keep answering the way you FEEL you should, and then show grace. Each interaction will be different, and this is the only approach that would apply to all.

On another note - how DARE you attend conferences without me? We will discuss this later...

Laura at Ms. Smartie Pants said...

Anna, I understand that the doctor might not want to read your book but I don't understand his lack of empathy. I find that to be the case all too often, it has been surprising to me. You line about not wanting to make people feel uncomfortable really struck me. I feel the same but it is such a huge part of us it almost feels like betrayal to NOT say it. I recently heard a woman speaking about compassion and she said we can't ever really feel it unless we let others in so that they can be compassionate toward us. I'm trying and it sounds like you are too. You are wise, I think baby steps is the way to go! I cannot wait to read your book!

Anonymous said...

You are so gracious--I think the Dr. sounds like an oaf, his comment to you was something he should have kept to himself (although I am sure he knows what he is doing in terms of your shoulder).

BethR1997 said...

No suggestions for what to tell people.

But lots of suggestions for your shoulder. I also have adhesive capsulites and it stinks. Keep it moving, go to therapy, get the cortisone shots, and do the stretches. I just got my second shot and it stinks. Hope you get "unstuck" soon!!


I use the policy, "Share-check-share."
Share, and check to see if they are listening, head nodding, do they want to know more? Than share some more or don't share based on their response. If they start talking about the weather, don't share anymore. They are not safe.
Praying for you.

Jamie Miles said...

I've had an especially rough two weeks with a child. And it's only the beginning. Parenting is such heartaches. Your words will help so many hurting people. I can only believe it will get easier the more you talk about your book and the words come out.

Amy Stuart said...

I am a Physical Therapist and we are used to hearing about deaths, illnesses, incarcerations, divorce, infidelity, you name it. I'm sure it didn't faze your PT and she will learn all about your family and your Jack in the next couple of weeks. My healthy, 44 year old husband collapsed and died 16 months ago while getting ready for bed. As I get asked about my family every day by my patients, I always have to figure out how I'm going to answer the inevitable questions so that I won't cry while still being honest in my answer. Sometimes i cry and sometimes I manage to hold it together. Both are equally acceptable responses. xoxo

claire plante said...

Anna, as you know you will not please everyone in life nor be able to make them comfortable, which can be so hard to accept (or at least it is for me). Casual interactions notwithstanding (where you undoubtedly just don't want to go into it), your story is the truth and it is your truth. I wish everyone was better at being present at the very least, with a simple, "I'm so sorry to hear that" rather than an awkward comment. Our fear of death creates all sorts of insensitivity (such as the doctor's comment). But your presence and writing help to cure this. Your sharing of your truth, through your book and relationships, is a gift to so many and a comforting touchpoint for those who have suffered loss. I admire you for not retorting to the doctor with a "well lucky for you - count your blessings that you don't have to 'do tragedy'!" But that is the beauty of your approach - you don't lecture people to count their blessings. You share your honest journey, and people identify with and respond to that and learn so much. xoxoxo Love, Claire

Stephanie said...

I agree with Kim. Jack is still such a huge part of your life. He is your son! A simple "I have one daughter and recently god needed my son in heaven."

I know this might sound queer but I do practice what I am going to say in my head for certain situations so I don't feel so uncomfortable. Say them out loud to yourself and see what work for you.

You definitely caught the doctor off guard. His response was awkward and uncomfortable. Some people have a harder time than others. Maybe the Dr. will have a better response to someone else someday. :-)

I am looking forward to reading you book Anna.

Hope your arm starts to feel better in no time.

Kathy at kissing the frog said...

Oh yes, this question. I do the same thing as you do - it depends on what interaction I'm having with someone. If it is brief and one time, I will either say I have 4 boys or five boys and leave it at that. If I know I will be seeing them more I tell Joey's story. And then there are the times when I make a cashier at some random store cry because I tell Joey's whole story. Something just comes over me and I have to talk about it. Weird. I admire you for writing about Jack. I have Joey's book written in pieces, but I'm scared to finish it. I'm scared people won't want to read it for the reasons your doctor said. That would just break my heart in a million ways. Maybe someday I will finish it. I'm proud of you for doing it, and I'm here if you need promotions and reviews. xoxo

Anonymous said...

I bet you are missing Jack a ton today. You were especially looking forward to helping him through all the ups and downs of the teen years.

You must know already that you showed excellent judgment in both cases, and it shows character that you weren't offended, but I believe his comment was insensitive and impolite, and I'm sorry you heard that.

The frozen shoulder sounds so painful. I'm so sorry!

You have nothing to be ashamed of, whatsoever. My heart goes out to everyone who has mentioned having to make these judgment calls. I'm very sorry.

Lora said...

I think in your case the truth is just what needs to be said, even if the person is looking for "small talk". Sharing Jack's story honors him and helps others! I think it will get easier for you, these baby steps are important.

Anonymous said...

I was acquaintances with a lady who'd lost her 2 year old son to meningitis over 30 years earlier. She cried when she told me about losing him but it wasn't a heart wrenching sob, more just tears falling from her eyes.

I think you have to go with your own gut as to when to talk about it and when not to. I wouldn't worry too much about their reaction, just go with whether it feels right to bring it up or not.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson said...

Thank you for all the advice and encouragement! And I am so, so sorry for the losses you have experienced Thank you for telling me about them. xo

Debby@Just Breathe said...

As you know I communicate through email and blogging with too many woman who have lost a child. Many of them have difficulty with those questions, some who have lost their children at birth may answer that they have no children. All I can say is that you must always honor Jack. I think saying that you have a daughter Margaret here and my son Jack is in heaven would be fine. If someone can't handle that well that's just too bad because I think people need to know that life doesn't always go as planned and that it's time for them to learn how to be compassionate to other. Sure it is their greatest fear but they need to respect and understand where you have been. Okay, I'll step off my soapbox. Love you Anna.

Unknown said...

My eyes filled with tears at your answer. I used to have 2 but now I just have 1.

I don't know, my friend. I seek out tragedy, which makes me completely weird, but also gives me good friends like you. I think I feel like God does something so stupendously big through loss that it's impossible to think about anything else when you get to the heart of things.

That said, I'm all for coffee and chitchat. It's just . . . God is glorified through it all somehow. And that's always worth talking about.

Anonymous said...

I think sometimes "owning" the issue makes it easier for everyone, instead of waiting for the follow-up questions. As in, when asked "what do you do?" "I am a writer. I'm writing a book about my son who passed away two years ago. It will be published in September." Then you have given the information out and people can follow up on it or not. I have found that since I started providing the information about my daughter up front, people say fewer stupid things and I don't feel so vulnerable.
By the way, I WILL be reading your book in September, as well as buying a copy for my book club. And that doctor was an oaf. Good for you for responding with such grace.

Unknown said...

Anna, I want to read your book, but I'm not sure I am brave enough. I'm going to try because that's what we moms should do, witness. And not only the good stuff.

Anyhow, I don't know the answer to your particular question. But I have a big fat cancer scar on my neck, and a super scary story about PPD, and my policy about sharing is kind of guided by my motivations. I try to keep them pure and honest. I try not to put my bad days on strangers. but I also listen for the hand of God. Sometimes God puts folks in front of us who need to hear, you know?

Beth said...

You are doing hard things! I just can't imagine going into a new doctor's or physical therapist's and being so open. Did you wake up that day feeling particularly strong, or that you were ready to put yourself out there that day? You are such a great role model. I have actually been wondering how you (or people in general) answer the "how many children do you have?" question, in part because of your blog profile. You "live with two delightfully imperfect children." At first I thought you might change the wording. Then I thought - well, you still live with Jack, every day, even if not physically. Thank you for being a great example of how to do hard things, every day. You really are not frozen.

Sarah Reinhart said...

The first thing that struck me about you Anna when I first started reading here was your strength. No doubt you'll find your words and your way in promoting your book. It will be well-received. I know it.

Dina Ochs said...

I am so upset at that Doctors statement????? As a former nurse, where in the world is the compassion and the love of Jesus in people these days? The human thing to do was to reach over and give you a hug and wish you the best. Does he not know a patient, family member or friend that has lost a child that he could of maybe bought the book for? Alright my rant is over! I have a sweet friend who lost a daughter over 30 years ago, in a DUI accident and although she has 4 other living children, Lollie always says, I have 5 children four on earth and one waiting for me in heaven". Please let me know if you need any help if you choose to visit Florida speaking about your book. I would love to buy a copy. Hugs from Tallahassee, Dina

Anonymous said...

I second what Suburdan Correspondent said so are strong, even when you feel weak

Anonymous said...

Lots of good suggestions here, and so many people dealing with loss in various ways in their lives. Tough stuff. My heart goes out to you all.

As someone who has always felt more comfortable with the written word than the spoken, I realize as I get older that it is a powerful way to truly connect with people. I'm working on becoming better at it. To me, though, it seems that whatever you truly feel like sharing is the way to go--and that will probably change given the day or the moment. What's super important is to give yourself grace for any choice you make in a given situation. Grace in all things...thank God.

Anonymous said...

I love what Amy Stuart wrote: " Sometimes i cry and sometimes I manage to hold it together. Both are equally acceptable responses." Such a perfect answer.

But sometimes it's not about your response. Sometimes it's about how to handle other people's very inappropriate comments -- not that they mean to be hurtful! they don't -- but as I'm sure you've found out, people say the oddest things. I don't really have an answer about how to respond except for the following: A. try to remember that inappropriate replies are not about you but about them and their issues B. is there any way you can get someone (your sister maybe) to go with you on your book tour? you will find it IMMENSELY helpful to have someone there to answer FOR you at times and to scurry you away from the scene if the need arises. and C. if possible, when someone utters something inappropriate, making light of it (even a joke) can often break a lot of tension (though it is in NO WAY your responsibility to make others feel comfortable -- but sometimes it can make YOU more comfortable).

I guess I had a lot to say. As usual. Uhg.

And thanks so much for your very sweet reply. ;)

E. in Vt.

Unknown said...

Oh Anna, I struggle with this all the time, and I only had TWO DAYS with my daughter. I think you should say what YOU feel comfortable saying, and don't worry about how the other person feels receiving it. Just like that doctor blurted out his response like he did, without thinking that for you it's your life, your connection to Jack, your pain, your joy. Not just some tragedy. I also think Jack will give you all the motivation you need to get through speaking. Because at the end of the day, your words mean something to so many people. You are a beautiful writer, people are going to want to read what you have written. Especially all the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings who have ever lost a child. I for one will read your book! Hugs and love! Alexa

Anonymous said...

Wow, I bet you could give that doctor a very good cold shoulder the next time you see him (you know, with the frozen one). Not that you would...but maybe it would be tempting. : ) I hope it feels better soon.

I have a feeling that there may not be a prescriptive way to field those questions and comments as you start having to talk about what you write so well about. But I also have the feeling that whomever interacts with you will come away with something that will help their hearts grow, even if the interaction is perhaps awkward or uncomfortable.


Carla said...

Hello Anna,

This post has brought me out of lurking. Thank you for your transparency and for sharing.

I have been in the grief support world a number of years, and my first thought is this... what is comfortable or comforting for one person to hear can be awkward and painful for another person to hear. That goes for both people in the conversation... for the mourner and for the non-mourner alike. Accepting this has been, for me, part of the healing process when I've been grieving or trying to companion someone else who is grieving. There are no perfect, one-size-fits-all words in the world of loss.

I once heard a quote that you know you've reached a milestone in mourning when you can share your experience in a sentence (with someone who has not heard your story before). That resonated with me. For me it is an indicator that I am beginning to have power over my story versus my story having power over me.

To think about and have that sentence ready ahead of time can be incredibly comforting and prevent feelings of being blindsided.

Regarding the "what do you do?" question, perhaps answering, "I'm entering the writing market" casts a slightly different spin where you don't have to come up with a list of books you've written when the next question comes. Or you could say that after blogging x number of years your first book is being published.

I like Kim's suggestion of including how you've handled the loss of your son when you are asked what the book is about. I also think it is powerful to use Jack's name as it validates his life... "I wrote about the death of my son Jack and what his life and death has taught/is teaching me."

How to answer the question "how many kids do you have?"... that's tough. I think you are wise to continue to put it through the filters you deem appropriate depending on the circumstances (will I ever see this person again, am I answering this question on paper as a patient or as an author sharing about my book, etc...). "I have a daughter who is x years old and a son who died (in an accident) x years ago."

As for the doctor who said he doesn't do tragedy, you are right on the money to not be offended. I think being prepared with a few gracious lines in situations like that is helpful. "I don't blame you; I didn't do tragedy either!" lets him off the hook and in a possibly ironic way, could open the door for him to share why he doesn't do tragedy - thus bringing connection and education - which is why you're writing to begin with.

Please forgive the length of this comment and disregard anything I've shared that doesn't "fit" for you. Peace to you and peace to Jack's memory as you embark on this next season of life.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Anna, I have to agree with many of the other comments and say, just speak from your heart (as you so beautifully and eloquently do) when answering people's questions. And as another commenter has said, you showed such character by not being offended when the doctor said 'he didn't do TRAGEDY' but I, too, think his comment was insensitive and I know I would have cried! Even though you were ok with that, it still hurts my heart that you had to hear that. Would it really hurt for people to be kinder and take just a few minutes of their time to show a little more empathy. We never know when the tables will turn. I am so happy for all the ways Jack memory lives on and I can't wait to read the book. Sending prayers and love.

OSMA said...

You have such a gentle spirit bc that doc's response got me all twisted. Grrr. Maybe it was better in the delivery. Like so many have already said, I have no suggestions that are full proof. I imagine it's hard to leave it up to circumstance bc maybe there's a sense of anxiety not having a ready response. I'm the queen of awkward and will eat my own fingers to avoid making someone else feel awkward too. So I would probably stand there with my fingers in my mouth, not answering. Anything is bound to be better than that.

Sending love to you. Sorry I'm no help and rather pedestrian tonight. Just wanting you to know I'm here bc I never leave a trail anymore. But I'm here.

Anonymous said...

That doctor is a jerk period

Princess Kate said...

I think your heart will know exactly what to say each time. Hope the frozen shoulder heals quickly.

Ellen aka Ellie said...

I haven't read any of the other comments, so if this is repetitive, I apologize.

No guideline needed. Say it how you want when you want. Do not worry about making others uncomfortable. They may grow a bit from your story, it could be their story is the same. It could be they need a kick in their pants that everyone isn't fine. I could be that one person you tell is the one person who will have something to say that helps your heart. It could be that person is dealing with a loss and needs to see someone else in pain. It could be...

Unknown said...

My book and TV preferences changed dramatically when I became a mother, too.
I am afraid I have no advice on what to say to people other than what you feel in that moment.

amomwithnails said...

Answer honestly, the way you feel in the moment. You aren't required to worry about how it will feel to someone else.

Greta @gfunkified said...

I know it's not the same, but I feel this way too. I grew up with three brothers, and now have two. But I don't really know what to say when I talk about them either.

I think the gauge is just as much how you're feeling as the other person. I understand why you said what you did to the PT and's never an easy situation when you're with someone that doesn't know and he/she's asking questions. But there's no "right" answer. Do what you feel in the moment.

GrahamForeverInMyHeart said...

I live in fear of the question "How many children do you have?" or, even worse, "How's Graham?" (from someone who we haven't seen for a while). I have mastered the arts of disappearing, evasion, and redirection. It's so difficult to know how to handle those questions. I'll always have two children. I am unable to actually talk about it without falling apart, so I tend to avoid conversations. I agree with some of the commenters who suggested that you gauge each situation and your own feelings at the time.

My husband had a frozen shoulder. He went to therapy for a while, then did the recommended exercises for a while. Then he got tired of the whole thing and tried to ignore the problem. After 18 months, his shoulder got better. I think frozen shoulder is one of those things that will eventually heal anyway.

I think you're very generous about your doctor's comment. It's one thing not to want to watch scary or tragic tv. However, your son's death is real and you didn't choose a life path of tragedy. The doctor could have simply said that he was sorry.

Anonymous said...

I've been sending up prayers for the healing of your heart and your health. While I cannot fathom how difficult the former is (and I think others have offered good advice)... I have been there with the shoulder. Exercises are definitely key so keep them up...whenever I slack I pay for it. I, too, babied my shoulder wearing only button up shirts I could slide up, asked for help with socks, etc. I'm hoping there's an up side for you and that you haven't had to shovel a flake of snow! Aging presents so many opportunities to be reminded that our bodies are temporary and we are just passing through to the eternal (and your precious Jack). Love you! Karen

Anonymous said...

I admire you for writing about your loss and putting yourself out there. You are brave!

Galit Breen said...

Oh Anna, I don't have any advice. But I want you to know that I'm sending you what I've got as you tiptoe your way through this. You're so graceful and transparent -- I have endless respect for you.

(And I for one can't wait to hold your book between my fingertips. And when the tears run, so be it.)

Esther said...

Maybe you could say, "I have two kids, but my son lives with his Father in heaven."

You are amazing, and I am grateful for your story of strength, even if it's on the form of a muddy, army crawl.

joyfulchallenge said...

It's been 5 years and I avoid the subject at all costs because I still can't share without crying. Write all day about it, open mouth and tears fall.

I liked the "# here and 1 in heaven" answers though. short, sweet, and they can avoid a follow-up or ask more, for those you are going to see more regularly. I'm actually facing this now as I've just started a new job, new faces, new questions all over again. I've procrastinated bringing pics for my desk because I wasn't ready for the questions yet.

You are so brave and your sharing is helping give me the courage to go for it. Take care, friend. hugs.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where the saying originated, but I remember from my youth hearing that "sorrow shared is sorrow halved, and joy shared is joy doubled." Sharing both is what helps the grieving endure tragedy. And those who don't "do" tragedy will someday find tragedy "does" them, like it or not. I hope when tragedy knocks on that doctor's door, he finds strength, beauty, and sprinkles of joy amidst the sorrow, as you are doing. Keep sharing -- sorrows and joys, and we will do our best to lighten the weight of your grief.

Unknown said...

I understand your struggle for I struggle with it too. I also think your Dr's response was extremely hurtful. None of us 'do' tragedy, but sometimes it falls in our lap and we have to dig our way out and it's a lonely place. I wish I had an invisible sign, I wish people just knew. I have to talk about it, our sons our such a huge part of who we are. I almost feel like I'm being fake when I don't tell the whole truth. Small talk or not, I get tired of walking on eggshells.

Robin @ Farewell, Stranger said...

I don't know what the right answer is. I don't really think there is one. But I don't think there's a wrong answer either. If you choose not to share you can always share later, and if you share and the person wasn't *really* asking, that's okay too. There's nothing wrong with truth, even when it's hard.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this for days, so I thought I would write the comment down. I've been a reader for over a year, but have not commented before.

This drives my husband nuts, but I sometimes ask for confirmation before divulging something, as in:

Q. "What's your book about?"

A. "Are you sure you want to know?"

That gives the questioner a cue that the subject matter will not be something neutral or light. If the answer is affirmative, you can still be a bit vague, i.e. "it's a book about grieving" or "it's about the surprising things that happened while I was grieving my son that died." That leaves the door open if you want it to be.

As for the doctor's comment, bravo to you for not being offended. Personally, I think any physician (or any person, really) who is around long enough is going to do tragedy at some point. If you were alive for 9/11, you had to do a little bit of tragedy. My answers to things like that would likely vary from what you were thinking

Dr: I don't do tragedy.

A: Heh. I don't blame you. I mean, who wants to do tragedy? Believe me, I didn't choose it.

to the sarcastic

Dr: I don't do tragedy.

A: Really? So there's no tragedy in medicine?

Anyway, you are a gifted writer, and I can't wait to read our book!

Unknown said...

I know there will be people who will shy away from your book because they may be uncomfortable with the subject. HOWEVER, there will be so many people who will find solace and help in it as well.

I also just want to say that I was SO, So happy to meet and hug you this past weekend, Anna.


Anonymous said...

Anna, I loved all the responses but the one that struck me was the kind person who suggested that God uses us in small little ways to lead others and perhaps even teach one another important lessons. You are a tremendous "teacher" even though you might not feel that way. One step at a time and I know you will get very good at answering the tough questions...and perhaps it might even depend on the day/week you are having. The one thing I can say for sure is that I hope you are good to yourself. Dont ever give your responses a second thought. You are graceful, courageous and such an inspiration to all of us. Be gentle on yourself. I adore your blog and P.S.- the doctors response was rude...I'd bet anything after you walked out and he had some time to reflect, he probably felt a little bad about being such a jerk....very, very insensitive.
Sending big hugs!
A Chicago reader

Judith said...

Go with your gut. If you will be spending a lot of time with someone (like the PT) and feel comfortable enough for brutal honesty, do it. I think each situation will "tell" you the way to go. Your honesty is what has always touched me. I am sure there are many, many people you will meet who will feel the same way. Try to be open to what the Universe is going to send you. :0) Be courageous as you have been throughout these last months and your heart will not only begin to mend, but other's hearts will be touched too. As your heart mends, it will be filled with the love you have for Jack, Tim and Margaret and you will begin to feel whole again. I promise. It can happen. God bless you, Anna.

Florida mom said...

Hi I liked Anna's "Share-check-share" policy. "Share, and check to see if they are listening, head nodding, do they want to know more? Than share some more or don't share based on their response."
My 21 year old daughter died last year, and I have another daughter and a son. I am in a very public position, owning a coffee house, and often "chat" with the customers. I've had this same dilemma. The short answer is always "three". Then if they ask more, I say "my grown son and daughter live in Ohio now." If they can do math, and are interested in continuing the conversation, I say "we lost our youngest last year." I WANT to say "she's in Heaven", but haven't brought myself to that point yet. Still struggling with the answer! That's why I read every single response to this post.
One thing I've learned is that MANY people have had a similar experience that they are relieved to get a chance to up up about, so I try to talk if I think someone will listen. My husband doesn't talk about her, and I think this makes the struggle even harder for him.
As for the doctor who said he doesn't do tragedy, I liked the comment"I don't blame you; I didn't do tragedy either!" I might add "Until I was forced into it", or something like that.

AGAIN, THANK YOU for your openness, and for giving so many of us a place to share and learn about this grief we are forced to deal with and wade through.

Florida mom said...

Hi I liked Anna's "Share-check-share" policy. "Share, and check to see if they are listening, head nodding, do they want to know more? Than share some more or don't share based on their response."
My 21 year old daughter died last year, and I have another daughter and a son. I am in a very public position, owning a coffee house, and often "chat" with the customers. I've had this same dilemma. The short answer is always "three". Then if they ask more, I say "my grown son and daughter live in Ohio now." If they can do math, and are interested in continuing the conversation, I say "we lost our youngest last year." I WANT to say "she's in Heaven", but haven't brought myself to that point yet. Still struggling with the answer! That's why I read every single response to this post.
One thing I've learned is that MANY people have had a similar experience that they are relieved to get a chance to up up about, so I try to talk if I think someone will listen. My husband doesn't talk about her, and I think this makes the struggle even harder for him.
As for the doctor who said he doesn't do tragedy, I liked the comment"I don't blame you; I didn't do tragedy either!" I might add "Until I was forced into it", or something like that.

AGAIN, THANK YOU for your openness, and for giving so many of us a place to share and learn about this grief we are forced to deal with and wade through.

Unknown said...

Life is complicated for so many of us. I have a son I gave up for adoption 19 years ago and I have a daughter who is 8. When I am asked how many children I have I always feel a bit like I'm lying or betraying my son to say one. The adoption was an open adoption and I felt more like they adopted me than that I gave a child up. He has always been a big part of my life and refers to me as mom when I see him. His mom and I feel like we are sisters. His adoption took over 3 years to complete due to complications with the birth father so it was a large part of my life for a long time. When I do mention him to strangers or new friends who don't know this part of my past, many things happen. Sometimes the other person then shares something incredible that happened in their life. Sometimes the person does not know how to respond and I know to cut things short. Sometimes it's my daughter who mentions her brother and then I get the questioning look of "I thought you only had one child" and I then share my story. I wish your doctor's response had been more gracious. Maybe he will follow up with something at your next appointment that will have all of us liking him better. Maybe not.

Thank you so much for sharing your life stories with us and allowing us to learn from you how to be better about receiving others grief when we are fortunate enough to have them share their story with us.

Anonymous said...

no suggestions, just hugs.

Once you talk about it more to strangers, it will be a little bit easier. I hope??

Personally, I think the dr was rude to say "I don't do tragedy." I mean, I get that, we all get it, but it is just a little abrupt?

carrie said...

Most of the things I would have said have been covered by your other fans in the comments section. I was really perturbed by the doctor's response and he is in the field he is in for a reason. He honestly may not be able to handle it, but a better "bedside" manner so to speak would have said more about him as a person in such a profession. We had several doctors with my Gram when she was only about to live a few more days and he was obviously inexperienced and I am pretty sure he had not been on the side that we were on, yet. Perhaps it takes life lessons to get there, which we all agree helps with empathy, but it was still very cold. You just keep doing what you are doing and shouldn't feel ashamed for inflicting painful thoughts on people that try and hide from it. There is a whole other raw and real world that is happening and we cannot deny it and become compassionate, caring human beings without hearing these stories and thanking our lucky stars we are not the bearer of the most true pain there exists in the world. You are a great woman and a mother to two. Never feel ashamed that you have to define what that means for you now. xoxo

Carla said...

I commented a couple of weeks ago on this post, Anna, but feel compelled to add to my remark. I shared in my first comment that you were appropriate in not being offended by the doctor's words, "I don't DO tragedy," and offered a possible response of, "I don't blame you, I didn't do tragedy either," thus letting him save face and perhaps opening the door to more connection and education.

I've kept thinking about his sentence, particularly seeing the response it has invoked in your kind readers.

I have wondered if the doctor meant his comment as hurtfully as it comes across. I agree with readers' comments that he could have chosen better words. But I wonder if what he meant was that he doesn't READ books with tragic themes... instead of he doesn't involve himself IN tragic situations. Partly because he did preface his remark with, "I'm sorry."

I am not defending the doctor. He would have done better to leave it at expressing his sympathy and wishing your book well. I say this as someone who once was treated so insensitively by a doctor that I severed my patient/doctor relationship with him and told him why.

But there is perhaps an understandable reason as to why he said what he did - which is he is constantly around tragedy in his every day professional life - and therefore he sets boundaries for what he exposes himself to when he has the choice.

I think, as you said, your experience with this doctor is indeed good practice for talking with people about Jack and your book. We might expect a better response from a professional caregiver... but this is a common reaction to tragedy from humanity at large.

Some people avoid it. Some gravitate to it, sometimes even inappropriately (being emotionally voyeuristic). Some are supportive. Some are interested in learning how to be supportive. Some are burned out as supporters. Some people are in the thick of it. Some want to be left alone in it. Some seek help to get through it.

As a woman who is publicly sharing her story, you will become skilled at identifying these types of people (and more). You will learn how best to respond (or not respond) to all those types. I want to encourage you that your comfort level with these things will indeed increase.

Through your book you are now entering the world as a grief caregiver. That means two things. One, it will be helpful for you, as I shared above, to be prepared how to react to all kinds of people's responses to tragedy. And two, it will be helpful for you to have your own support network set up to process all you will be exposed to as new layers of your grief will be exposed.

I have great admiration and respect for how you handled yourself in this situation. And once again, please forgive the length of this post and disregard anything that does not fit.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna- I'm biting my nails like I usually do when I'm nervous. You know when God is nearly pointing neon signs at what you need to do but you still wonder if you are really seeing them? Your book recommendation popped up this am and wouldn't you know my pastor gave it to me months ago and it's got a few layers of dust on it. Recap I lost my 3 year old son suddenly and without really much explanation other than a virus he could not fight in Oct. 2011. I was running a girl scout meeting 4 blocks away while my son passed away during his nap with the sitter. Fast froward I'm on a very slow backwards grief journey and even though I secretly hoped the sitter would fall through, she did not so I'm able to come and hear you speak tomorrow at the conference. A few people from our group grief therapy session last night asked if anyone was going, and I mentioned to them your blog and how good it is. I don't read a lot- but I do read your blog, and now I will dust off your the book. Getting back to your last questions from this post, ironically I also poured my heart out to my physical therapist 6 weeks after losing our son. Maybe it has something to do with the duration of seeing this person who is going to physically help you, which will also emotionally help you, and they seem like some sort of a savior? I reflect on why I chose to talk to that poor pt who really didn't know me very well and yet so many people don't know I ever had a son 23 months after my daughter. I now have an 18 month old son (we got pregnant within weeks of losing our son- at 42, not something I ever thought I would be). Anyway, I'm not sure what to expect tomorrow night, what you will say, or if I will be crying in a room full of people who have lost someone or are just looking for ceu's.. but I'm looking forward to it. God Bless You and thank you for dedicating so much time to all of us- I hope to be able to help others at some point too.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson said...

@anonymous Feb 19, Just saw this lovely comment tonight when I got home. You are the woman near the front that I wanted to ambush w/ a hug afterward, aren't you??? I felt very connected to you last night as I was speaking and I am sorry that we didn't really get to talk. Email me if you want to talk some more. xoxo

Julie said...

My brother died when I was 21 - an asthma attack.It's been many years now, 18 this fall, to be exact. It remains tricky to answer innocent questions such as: what does your brother do now? (usually after I've mentioned him) or do you have any siblings? And I still have to fight back tears when I answer. It's just hard. Always.