Katy was diagnosed with a meningioma, a rare operable brain tumor occurring in about 7 in 100,000 people. The tumor was an “incidental finding” or coincidence — revealed on a CT scan administered for a concussion unrelated to the tumor.
Katy required a 7-hour brain surgery while fully awake, so she could respond to questions from the surgeons. During the surgery, which involved temporary removal of her skull, her head was nailed into an MRI. She could hear and smell the drilling into her skull. There was risk of paralysis with surgery, but definitive risk of paralysis, or death, without it. If the operation were successful, however, she would be OK.
As Katy told the story of the discovery of the tumor and its implications to her friends and family, a common response was, “Wow — you’re really lucky!” Hmm… only 7 in 100,000 people get a brain tumor like this and it happened to her. Is that really being “lucky?”
What they really meant was, “Oh my God, what if you hadn’t had the concussion and didn’t discover the tumor in time?” Yes, it could have been worse. She could have been robbed of the chance to have surgery and possible cure.
But how is it that upon hearing such a story the word “lucky” comes to mind? Why do people say this? It’s not uncommon for people to respond to tragedies in this way, even sometimes their own.
The reasons aren’t that different from those behind comments made to the grief-stricken that their deceased loved one is “better off.” Mostly, such responses are unconsciously designed to make the person saying them more comfortable, but can invalidate the pain of the one who’s suffering. It’s uncomfortable to talk about frightening and painful things, or to imagine ourselves in the shoes of someone with such a scary fate.
People often avoid and isolate those who are grieving or have terminal illnesses, either literally or emotionally. They don’t know what to say or how to act — staying far enough away to preclude being able to really relate. They change the topic to the luck of it all or steer clear of talking about the elephant in the room. We need to keep a comfortable distance from another’s tragic fate and the reality that it could happen to us. It helps to remove ourselves and focus on the interesting coincidence, the positive, and how things could have been worse.
Gratitude can foster resilience to better help weather life’s misfortunes.
It’s one thing, however, to cope with our own tragedies by focusing on the silver lining and maintaining a positive perspective. Focusing on the positive can be adaptive as a way to feel hope and not sink into despair, giving us time to adjust. Similarly, gratitude, achieved from within through genuine, hard-earned acceptance and perspective can foster resilience to weather misfortune.
But when someone we care about is suffering tragedy or ill fate, understanding their subjective experience by listening carefully and following their lead can inform our sense of how to respond in a way that would be comforting to them. Some people do need to avoid facing painful realities at times and feel better when others join with them in this way. In that situation, however, an optimistic perspective is truly an empathic response that emerges from sensing where the other person is, rather than from one’s own anxiety or helplessness. Warning signs that you may be at risk for imposing your own discomfort onto your friend or loved one, rather than being with them include feeling anxious to do something and make things better, or feeling awkward and wanting to get away.
Though it may be a well-kept secret, many people going through such tragedies privately talk of feeling isolated emotionally. Sensing that those around them feel uncomfortable, they are forced to protect family and friends from having uncomfortable feelings. They are left with nowhere to turn. Being a true friend is to have courage to step into your loved one’s shoes so they don’t feel alone or have to take care of you. Before you tell someone stricken by tragedy how lucky they are, take a moment to consider whether you would want to trade places so you could be the “lucky” one.