There is no blame

This article came up yesterday on Facebook:

How never to say the wrong thing….

Well, now, wait. What the hell is your goal? To always comfort people? To always say the right thing? Peaceful and sweet and niceness all the time?


And isn’t it dishonest?

Isn’t a true friend that loves you the friend who says, hey, this guy you are dating sounds just like the last one, didn’t you say you weren’t going to do that again?

Even if it makes you mad. And you forgive them because damn it, they are RIGHT. You might not forgive them right away. It might take a while. You might shun them and then have to do some crawling and apologizing.

Our society is terribly afraid of emotion. Don’t say the wrong thing. Do not make someone angry, afraid, never ever hurt anyone.

Except…. I am a physician. And I’ve had my mother and then my little sister die of cancer.

With my mother, we did what she wanted. She was home for 6 weeks in hospice. My sister and I cried for two minutes after I told her the surgeon said feeding her iv would kill her faster. We took her home on iv fluid and morphine to starve. She was tough tough tough. We had over thirty visitors from as far away as London.

My partner was her doctor. She did a home visit and she cried. Afterwards my mother said, “I didn’t appreciate that.” So we did not cry.

My sister did one day when I was at work. She started crying after my mother was asleep in the hospital bed. She called me. “I started crying. And everyone left. Everyone left the room. Not one person stayed with me.”

Ouch. Now I can see that once my sister started, everyone was afraid that they would start too. So they all left.

I stopped talking. In the fifth week, family called and I was handed the phone. “How is she? Are you ok?” I just held the phone. I knew I was supposed to say reassuring things, I am ok, she is ok, but I wasn’t and she wasn’t. She was dying and I was broken, weeping inside. So I just held the phone, silent.

My mother died. We were all exhausted. And for the next two years I thought about it…. and one thing that I thought was, I wish she had let me cry. I did what she wanted. We all did. But in the end, I never got to cry with my mother and say how much I was going to miss her.

And maybe she would not have appreciated it. But I am her daughter! Don’t my feelings and wishes matter? There are two of us in this relationship!

Then my sister got breast cancer. At age 41. Stage IIIC. And this time I thought, I will be different.

I refused to do what she wanted. I told her I loved her, I told her when I was mad at her, I told her when she was hurting my feelings and when she was being wonderful. I held BOTH of us close. I held her close but I refused to let her go into the cancer bubble where no one was telling her the truth.

I was dating a man who complained. He told a couple’s counselor: “I want her to do what her sister wants or cut her off.” I explained about my mom. I explained about the cancer bubble, where people stop being honest and only do what they think you want. The counselor defended me.

And I think I did the right thing. For me. AND for my sister. Because our last day together, she thanked me and she even apologized for something… and I got to say “I love you anyhow.” I meant it to my bone marrow. People yelled at me for being grumpy, bitchy, not doing what she said…. but I was my real self with her. And she knew it. And she also knew I love her and stayed real with her.

In the hospital when someone is very sick, families fight. They argue. They get angry. The emotions are running high. The doctors, the nurses, the janitors, the desk people, we are used to it. People yell, they cry, they behave badly. But their hearts are breaking, why would we expect them or order them to behave well? Honestly, sometimes they work off some of the anger part of grief by fighting with each other.

In clinic sometimes I am handling a room: a person with cancer with a spouse and one or more children. Adult children. People handle death in different ways. Siblings fight before and after a death, “You aren’t doing right.” We are all different. The way I grieve is different from the way you grieve. There is no wrong, there is no blame.

My sister wanted to handle her cancer with grace. Grace, it’s complicated. For me, the greatest grace is honesty.

I want to die singing, crying, going to see the people I love that are gone, and honestly. The I Ching sometimes says there is no blame. Think if we could all accept each other’s honest emotions. The most beautiful harmony is sometimes the resolution of dissonance. Goodbye, goodbye, I will miss you so….and there is no blame.


For the Daily Prompt: harmonize. I took the photograph of my sister four days before she died.


9 thoughts on “There is no blame

  1. HesterLeyNel says:

    I was really moved by your words. Honesty can cause pain, for both parties, but it can also heal. Thank you for sharing this. Your little sister was beautiful.

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  3. Thanks for stating this and sharing painful experiences. Decades ago I told a significant other who suggested i go into therapy (as she was currently doing) and I said I didn’t want to because once i opened the flood gates, I didn’t know what was going to come pouring out. Eventually I did and its been a bumpy road, but worth it. As one might imagine, it has been a sticking point with future relationships who didn’t want all the honesty (or rather awkward attempts at being honest) and as one put it “all this processing.” In my recent past relationship I bluntly asked “would you rather i lie to you,” and she responded, “yes.” Go figure.

    • drkottaway says:

      But I think that is terribly common in our culture right now…. “I only want to be around you when you are up and positive and have the right attitude.” Uh, so what happened to in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, when I am happy and when I am sad? It is not support and it is not love if it is only present on a sunny day….

    • drkottaway says:

      I think of therapy like Pandora’s Box. You have to work through everything in the box before you get to hope….it can feel worse to open it. But not opening the box is even more horrific. And the people who don’t want to be around it…. Don’t take it personally. Just think what they have in their boxes and that you have reminded them of it. It is fighting to come out…..

  4. Thank you for sharing an honest, insightful post. You connected, truly connected with your sister, and that is beautiful. We all take this grief journey differently, and the only way to know the needs of others is honest communication.

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