My Life is Not Your Excavation SiteBy Emma Pearson
January 28, 2023
Main picture by Sabina Music Rich on Unsplash
18 October 2020
I had an experience yesterday which was wholly disagreeable in the moment, and of which similar versions have happened various times these past months and years. The difference was that I finally felt able to handle the situation calmly, directly, and with more resourcefulness than previous times. As I discussed it in the evening with Andrea, a fellow widbud, more things became clear.
In a nutshell, yesterday I was co-facilitating the first module for new volunteers-to-be for the hospice. During the brief introductions, of course I shared that both Edward and Mike had died at La Maison de Tara. I didn’t say anything about my work, my current status, kids, how many I had, nor about Julia’s subsequent death. I kept it relevant for the day’s session, knowing I will be working with these people for the next year.
And yes, I feel obliged to protect people from the full horror of my life, especially in group settings when not only is it not about me, but they do not have space or time to process what’s been said. It’s hard to “omit” Julia from a brief summary of my life, but I know people stop functioning when they hear too much. Call it temporary trauma, or freeze.
During the brief lunch break, I took myself off to the far side of the room and sat above a radiator. Given spatial distancing, we all pretty much ate with some distance one from the other, apart from one couple who were attending together. A participant came up to join me as I ate my big salad lunch. She placed herself within a metre of me, which in these days of spatial distancing was the first inappropriate thing. I let that bit go, but then the conversation went as follows. Imagine her words and sentences all rolling into one another… clippy and harsh.
Her: “So what is your current status?”
Me: (sounds of stunned incomprehension)
Her: “What is your nationality?”
Me: “Oh – I must have misunderstood you. I thought you asked about my current status. I am British and French”
Her: “Yes – I did ask about your status – I mean you’re widowed you’ve lost a brother do you have kids what do you do for a living are you in a relationship…” (I cut her off, feeling my blood rise and my breathing shallow)
Me: “So those are all huge questions and we don’t know each other and I am eating my lunch. I’d prefer not to answer those questions right now”
Her: “Yes but how are you now? I mean all those people died”
Me: “Yes and that’s not all of it because my youngest child took her life too”
Her: “Oh my god and how old was she and why and where did she do it and what did she do?”
Me: “Okay – I just said that I am eating my lunch. This is my break time. You are asking me too many questions and we don’t know each other”.
Her: “Yes but isn’t it all too much” (question mark intentionally omitted because there was no real curiosity – just an assumption)
Me: “Please. Stop asking me these questions. I live with what I live with. Please let me be. I want to eat, not talk. If you want to sit there you can. I want to eat in silence”
Her: “So can I at least ask what you are eating? I mean it looks such a lot. A huge portion of food. Are you really going to eat all of that?”
Me: (Showing her my food and saying nothing)
I believe after that she did shut up.
Oh my oh my oh my!
I am perturbed by the apparent entitlement that some people feel they have to excavate, extricate, or dissect someone else’s life. Without invitation. Without permission.
What would have turned it into a gentle – if still difficult, still painful – conversation? For I know that I too have asked intimate questions of people when they have shared something personal with me, though to my knowledge no-one has said back to me, “Okay – you can stop right there” or words to that effect.
My sense is that when people share something personal, I venture in more gently. Perhaps with an “I was sorry to hear about…” Or if it is not a death or other big drama but “just” something unusual and not routine or every day, I like to think I might say, “I was interested when you said… I’d be curious to learn more if you’re willing to share”.
At least I hope I’d say these things. Close friends can agree or disagree.
The difference is permission.
The difference is invitation following a proposal.
The difference is relationship.
The difference is connection.
The difference is empathy.
The difference is giving choice.
The difference is gentle curiosity rather than aggressive entitlement.
Those differences are all the difference.
I felt that she was trampling over my life, over my story. With hobnail boots. Without an entry ticket. Without permission. To make it her story. To turn this conversation into a piece of gossip for the evening. Taking, not giving.
I am relieved to say that by the close of the training, which was a taster/introductory session, she said that volunteering at Tara is not for her.
I concur. I shudder to imagine her harassing end of life residents for their life stories.
The conversation later that evening with my widbud Andrea was equally interesting. She expressed admiration at my holding boundaries, and intimated something about the line between being clear and direct, and being aggressive myself.
I feel so clear on my boundaries, which are for my own protection, my own well-being. I had the simple choice of being “Nice” or “Kind”. And I have written elsewhere about how different those two things are. Indeed I might not have been Nice to her, but I sure as hell was Kind to myself. And noticing that choice in the moment – which I truly did (I actually envisaged telling her about Julia, and I felt sick to my stomach – I KNEW with crystal clarity that it was not a story she had earned the right to hear) I chose to articulate a boundary. Megan Devine writes convincingly about how draining the expectation is that prickly grievers be expected to educate clunky people with grace and kindness. It’s too much. It should not be incumbent on the grieving person to educate the “transgressor” with yet more resources than they have to offer.
So, holding boundaries is Kindness. Kindness to self. If not always Niceness to the other.
And let’s face it – she was hardly being “Nice” or “Kind” with me.