Monday, October 23, 2017

With Sympathy

A great deal has been said about President Trump's handling, or mis-handling, of a phone call to express his condolences to Myeshia Johnson after the death of her husband La David T. Johnson as he served our country in Niger.

Mrs. Johnson and several others who heard the call were offended by Trump's saying, "He knew what he signed up for, but when it happens it hurts anyway." 

While Trump has denied saying it, I believe he said it but that it likely conveyed something he never intended-- that somehow it's not as bad to lose a loved one if he/she entered the situation willingly, such as through service to our country.

By denying his words, and then trying to cast doubt on the perception of "the wife" and "that congresswoman" he comes off as cruel and self-centered, and he breaks one of the first rules of offering sympathy which is don't make it about yourself.

And trust me, bereaved people remember quite accurately the tone deaf and hurtful words people say, despite how hard we might try to forget. 

Often the greatest harm comes from the words "AT LEAST" tacked onto expressions of sympathy.

At least you can have more children.
At least he is no longer on drugs.
At least you were married for 26 years.
At least she's in a better place.
At least he knew what he signed up for.

At leasts do not help the griever one iota, but people use them because they are trying to mitigate the magnitude of the loss, trying to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense and that cannot be fixed.

Grievers find no solace in at leasts. They are living the waking nightmare of trying to imagine a future without the one they love. They do not want their loss explained away or diminished.

A lot of discussion about what Trump said focuses on the phrase, "He knew what he signed up for" and fails to mention that he followed it with, "but when it happens it hurts anyway." That's not accurate, and that's probably what makes Trump so angry, angry enough to lash out at a grieving family, even as he says he is a champion of our soldiers and veterans. He did, in fact, acknowledge the Johnsons' pain, but we can see here how starting out with his own version of "at least" hurt more than it helped.

You may hear cries, even from the White House, that that Johnson family and their local congresswoman (and friend) are attempting to politicize his death. When your loved one's body is broken into pieces, when your child doesn't come home, you don't give a damn about politics. But you hurt, deeply, and you want to call out what you see as bad behavior or disrespect toward your loved one. At such a raw, tumultuous time it makes a whole lot more sense for a griever to be hurt and angry, than for someone to be angry at a griever. 

A good leader or a good friend can look outside of the discomfort he or she feels, can admit to not having the right words, and can show up without defensiveness or self-justification, even if it means taking the brunt of someone's hurt and pain. Caring, heartfelt words and presence are a balm, regardless of who gives them.

Of course it's not easy. 

Before my son died in a freak accident, I'm sure I said unhelpful and perhaps even hurtful things to grievers. I likely still do, but I'm getting better. People tell me they are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, they don't say anything at all. But because grief is incredibly disorienting and isolating, I encourage people to pick up the phone, make the call, or write the card anyway, even if it feels risky.

The more basic the better:

I am so sorry for your loss.
This really hurts.
(Loved one's name) will never be forgotten.
Words fail me.
I care about you and (loved one's name).

Yes, you might stumble or fumble. We all do. Be GRATEFUL if you are able to find out if your words have caused harm, for then you can address it. President Trump quickly discovered his words did more harm than good. In humility, he could have said, "I am sorry I caused you more pain. My words didn't reflect what I was trying to convey."

Or perhaps: "Words fail me, but that doesn't diminish how sorry I am for your great loss."

Addressing it does NOT mean denying you said what you did, or trying to justify yourself. What is perceived and received by the griever is what is most important here, if your intent is truly to provide sympathy and succor.

A dear friend drifted away after my son died. When I expressed that I felt she wasn't there for me, she pointed out she had sent me texts that I'd left unanswered. I'm sure she could have pulled them up on her phone as proof.

At a time of great loss, is it more important to dig in to try to win an argument, or to come alongside someone who is hurting? 

What can we all learn from this? 

Making condolence calls from the White House, or from your house, while necessary, is likely not anyone's favorite thing to do. You may feel tongue-tied and vulnerable. Any step feels like a potential mis-step. Do it anyway. You are on holy ground. When you mess up, as we all do, apologize for how it was perceived and felt by the grievers, not by you. Use the deceased person's name, again and again. Our greatest fear is that our loved one will be forgotten. Acknowledge pain with NO qualifications, no excuses, no buts or at leasts. 

Yes, words often fail. 
No, we can't fix anything. 
But we show up anyway, and we try to offer comfort.

And to the President: keep making those calls. It's what you signed up for, even though it hurts.

p.s. Current events led me to write this post about expressing sympathy, and I welcome your thoughts about it here. However, I will delete comments that are hurtful or disrespectful. Thank you!

Friday, October 20, 2017


Things feel tough right now. Not cosmic-level tough, just frazzle-making, quick-tempered, cranky tough. Tim is busy at work, Margaret is surviving the hell that is JUNIOR YEAR, and I'm deep into toddler-land with a sick and stuffed-up Andrew. My 12 hours a week of freedom while he's at Mother's Day Out have yet to exceed 8 and it's nearly November. Tim and I have done some really fun things lately, but not as a couple or as a family.

We are all tired.

Tim and Margaret work late into each night after putting in full days. I follow Andrew around, yet I'm not always fully engaged. We rely on our phones, computers, and tv too much, which cuts down on productivity and eliminates family time. "Communication" is by text, if at all. Because we are tired, we become less generous and grace-filled. In fact, we are grace-emptied. We start to think, "But what about MY NEEDS?" When we hit smallish bumps in the road, we catastrophize about the future, telling ourselves, "It will ALWAYS be this tough."

A few mornings ago, we were deep in the morning rush. It was clear Margaret would be late for school as she tried to finish up an assignment. Tim, her driver, felt angry and manipulated. I felt resentful of getting up before the sun with a toddler. In the midst of all of this, knocks started coming on the door.

Poor communication meant I had no idea Tim had hired landscapers to do some work for us that morning. The dogs barked, Andrew cried, Tim sighed, I groaned. More knocks came. Oh, yeah, our cleaning lady and her sister were here for our twice monthly cleaning.

Knock Knock.

Are those the garage door people? Darn. I'd assumed everyone would be out of the house before they got here. Even in the chaos of that moment, I realized how fortunate we are to have a house, and to be able to have help to keep it running smoothly.

But nothing felt smooth.

It's one thing to have a rough morning family-wise; it's another to do it with 7 extra people as witnesses to your disfunction. Tim and Margaret eventually huffed and puffed out of the house, I parked Andrew in front of Little Einsteins (again), and I got to discuss garage door motors in my pj's.

I know better days are ahead-- they always are-- but boy would it be nice to feel well-rested, more connected, and optimistic here at Team Donaldson. I've found what sometimes helps us is getting OUT of the house together for something low-key such as lunch at a Mexican restaurant or a mandatory walk on a local trail. If we can't get out, then eating a meal together or watching a show we all like helps.

What about you? How do you knit things together when it feels like you are unraveling?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Bard's Alley Event Tonight!

I'll be signing books and speaking at Bard's Alley bookstore in Vienna, VA at 7 pm tonight. If you are local and can join me, I'd love to meet you!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Tim's Newest Love Interest

My last two Stitch Fix boxes have been huge hits; each time I kept 3 out of the 5 items sent to me.

My latest box garnered me buttery soft navy dress pants, a flowy cranberry cardigan, and a gray wool pullover with cool braided sleeves. Once again, I really felt like my stylist had a handle on what I was looking for. So why am I not showing you pictures of MY latest haul? Well, someone else has taken my spot as the Stitch Fix husband Tim.

Remember how I got him a fix for Valentine's Day? Since then, he has kept 10 out of 10 pieces sent to him! He even kept SHOES. I mean, leave it to a man to update his entire closet without having to expend an ounce of energy. He informed us that his next Fix is on its way and he is practically giddy.

Margaret and I are just glad we helped him fill out his style profile because we love everything he has gotten. Last time he asked for work clothes, and this time wanted casual staples. Everything is trimmer and more on-trend than what he is used to wearing. Not sure if I should want my husband looking even younger and cooler than he does, but oh well.

If you think you or your significant other would like having your own personal stylist hand select clothes for you, then check out Stitch Fix. There is a $20 styling fee, but when you purchase even one article of clothing, the fee is applied to the cost of it. And if you are like Tim, and keep every single item, there is a 25% discount on everything. 

If you do end up with something you don't like, it's a breeze to pop it in the prepaid mailer (provided) and stick it in your mailbox for pickup. I am still laughing about the fluffy pirate-looking shirt my friend got sent. Not sure how that happened, but at least it was entertaining for us and easy to return for her!

As always, I get a small commission if you sign up though my links. 

Happy Fixing!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Pre-School Progress

As I mentioned before, Andrew started a wonderful Mother's Day Out program at a Very Excellent Preschool this fall.

His adjustment has been super smooth, and he lunges at his backpack (his "bye-bye" bag) every morning in the hopes that it's a preschool day. It would be enough to give me a complex about my mothering if I weren't so darn happy that he's having a blast.

The school is quite the haul all the way across town, but there aren't many local part-time options for the under-2 set. In my previous pre-school experiences, even though I knew this was a Very Excellent Preschool with the best playground around, I never even considered it.

Why? Because it's a co-op.

I'm sure there are those of you out there who just LOVE co-oping in your child's school. It's a wonderful way to get a pulse on what goes on there, to keep tuition costs down, and to show your family's commitment to the school.

Good for you.

I am not one of those people. Sure, I spent a lot of time in Jack and Margaret's elementary school, but that was not out of the goodness of my heart-- it was to meet a yearly requirement. In fact, one day,  after four years of having kids yell out to me to hand deliver ranch dressing for them to pour all over their carrots pizza, I actually bought my way out of my Pizza Lunch duties for the remainder of my tenure. Sure, I was the first to volunteer as a field trip chaperone, or to go on the Girl Scout camping trips, because I really did enjoy being around my kids and their classmates but I guess I'm just stubborn in that I want to volunteer, not co-op. Sure, it's largely semantics, but somewhere inside me is that little pill who would hiss at her parents: "I'm doing it 'cuz I want to, not because you told me to!"

I thought this time would be different.

No, not because with Andrew I've amended my wicked ways and want to work in the classroom, but because my friend, whom we'll call Jane Ann (because that is her name) -- convinced me that the Very Excellent Preschool no longer had a co-op requirement for Andrew's age group.

This is what happens when all of your friends are pushing 45. Preschool Intel gets a little fuzzy, and before you know it you are in the Kangaroo Room wiping noses and doling out snacks on your 48th birthday. Yep. Friday, my birthday, is my first day on the schedule.

If you are reading this and your child is at the Very Excellent Preschool, please know that I'll be on the top of my game, ready to cuddle and encourage, but that "I'm doing it 'cuz I want to, not because you told me to!" Plus, what better way to feel hopeful and optimistic for the year ahead than spending it with little ones?

The rest of you, please raise a glass of iced tea to me on my birthday, and hope these old knees hold out!

P.S. Doesn't he look miserable???? :)