You Should Be So Lucky: Dealing with Tragedy
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.