The cancer excuse: don't upstage the person who's suffering

The cancer excuse: don't upstage the person who's suffering
Photo by Derek Σωκράτης Finch. Used with permission of a Creative Commons License here.

It is a short drive from another person’s trauma to your own suffering. I’ll be the first to admit that bad things don’t happen to just one person because we are not islands. Trauma and illness spread out their suffering, concentric circles in a pond after a stone is thrown in.

It’s hard to watch our parents age and grow ill. It’s hard to watch our friends get kicked in the gut by life. It’s excruciating to see our children suffer.

And, it’s the price of loving people. When you slip into the pond of relationships and share the water, whether calm or bumpy, you’re going to get hurt.

The memory of my daughter in an ICU, skin so pale it was translucent, pain carving deep lines in her face and pain meds deadening her eyes, is seared into my brain. Watching her stand for the first time after her surgery, watching her agony as two people supported her, watching as she was unable to take a step on her own almost brought me to my knees. It was devastating. Thinking of it now makes me sick to my stomach.

But, her back surgery was not my experience. I was an onlooker, a mother having her own experience and her own fear and suffering. Her back surgery was her experience.

Frankly, it would have been unseemly for my suffering to take the front seat. This was about her and not about her family.

I’m struggling to hit the point I want to hit here. I guess what I’m saying is that we need to get our ducks in a row and know our places. There’s a hierarchy during trauma and we need to see and understand where we fit.

My grandmother was the kind of person whose suffering drew people to her. She suffered publicly and people came to her to comfort her. When my mom was in the hospital, near death, my grandmother was surrounded by people comforting her. Many of them didn’t know my mother. It was an odd scene. My mom was dying, but the spotlight was on Gram. Her suffering took center stage and my mom was moved to the wings.

I have no doubt that my grandmother was devastated and needed the love, but I was always struck by the way the scene was de-centered. It was hard to even see my mom because my grandmother’s pain was such a scene stealer. Her grief upstaged my mom’s death.

One of my favorite Amy Schumer scenes is “The Cancer Excuse,” where she gets attention because of Tig Notaro’s cancer. Notaro was a writer on her show, whose famous standup routine took cancer to the mainstage. Schumer’s character in the sitcom gets to avoid social obligations and earns extra sympathy because of Notaro’s diagnosis. Clearly, I’m not doing it justice, so you can watch it here.

It’s comedy at its best, teaching us about ourselves in hard circumstances. It reminds us that just because we are hurting and just because we are able to command an audience, doesn’t mean that we should grab the spotlight.

Being a good person means stepping back from center stage, sucking up your own grief and suffering, sometimes, and letting the attention wander away from you.

Being a good person means understanding where you are in the pond, noticing that those circles spreading out to touch you started somewhere else.

Being a good person means moving forward and dealing with your own suffering without the applause of an audience.

I’m sure that there’s enough love to go around. Reaching out for comfort isn’t wrong, of course. We need each other desperately.

But, sometimes we need to be silent. We need to let go of our own grief. We need to redirect the gaze of the universe back to the true center.

I love the Amy Schumer episode because it ends with Tig Notaro on the mainstage. She is healthy and recovered and all eyes are on her. The world is back in balance.

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Filed under: Advice, Cancer, Uncategorized

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