The Types of Pity Parties You Encounter When You or Your Kids Have Medical Issues


Pity is the act of feeling sorrow for the misfortunes of others.

As a mom of two medically complex kids, who are both severely hard of hearing, and as an individual who lives with chronic illness, I have at times found myself on the receiving end of pity.

My pity party began when both of my children were born premature and had to spend the first weeks of their lives in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Little did I know this was only the beginning of what has and continues to be a wild, difficult, but also wonderful and miraculous journey. Throughout the years, as the diagnoses have continued to pile up, the pity party has continued; and I have become somewhat of an expert as to how to navigate it.

Pity comes in various forms. Here are a few examples:

Complimentary Pity — frequently offered with a hug and a hand pat: “You guys are so strong and the kids are doing so well!” This is probably the sincerest and least likely to offend form of pity, in my opinion, but let’s be honest, it’s not really helpful.

Everything Happens for a Reason Pity – frequently stated with a knowing smile and nod, as if it’s the first time such words were ever uttered in my presence.  “God must think you are very special to give you not one, but two special children” or “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

“God must think I am a total badass!” I think to myself while biting my tongue.

Drive-by Pity – usually takes place at a social gathering and happens so quickly that you don’t really have time to respond because the offender has already moved on to another person, conversation and location.  “I don’t know how you do it!” “I don’t think I could,” and close with “Hang in there!”

“As if I have a fu*king choice!” I want to scream at them from across the room.

I realize that others mean well, but if you don’t know what to say to a parent of children with special needs and/or are living with chronic illness, just stick with, “Hello, nice to see you,” and keep moving on to the bar or the chip-and-dip table. I would much rather you not ask about my family’s challenges than express how sorry you feel for us. We do not want, nor do we need your pity.

But what we do crave is understanding and empathy. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

For some of us empathy comes naturally. We feel what it is that others are feeling, be it when they are happy and also when they are struggling. For others, empathy requires effort. Not because they do not care but more likely because they are focused on caring for their own families.

Yes, I realize that opening ourselves to what others are feeling comes with risks and we will not always be exposed to pleasant, shiny, happy feelings. But it is in pain that we often learn life’s hardest lessons which result in some of the greatest changes.

We as a society are quick to step up and help others in need after tragedies and disasters. We open our wallets and donate cash and goods via GoFundMe accounts, TV telethons and cash register campaigns. But we are not so great at taking the time to learn exactly why an individual or a group of people is struggling and how they actually got to that place. Imagine the real change that could potentially come from just putting ourselves in the proverbial shoes of others for a little. We might actually learn something new, which could change our views and belief systems for the better.

Expressing empathy to another does not require huge acts of service. It can be as simple as asking a mom of a child with special needs and/or chronic illness how she is doing and if she replies, “fine” but you know she is not, saying, “Tell me how you are really doing. Because I care about you, and I want to know.” Just be present in the moment with her, so she feels heard, cared for and maybe not so alone.

Rather than throwing pity parties for those who might be struggling, try showing them empathy instead.

From empathy comes awareness, and often from awareness, comes meaningful change.

Image via Thinkstock.


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