needed: a fence to keep out inappropriate disclosures

Recently my neighbours' dog died. It wasn't actually their dog, it was their daughter's and son-in-law's dog, but Daughter often dropped off H-Dog at her parents' house for daycare. Mr Neighbour especially spent a lot of time with H. Poor H died suddenly, at the dog park. Making it worse for H's parents, their previous dog had also died young. When we lost a dog suddenly, only 8 months after another dog had died, our hearts were unspeakably broken. I can easily imagine how bad they must have felt.

I rarely see Ms Neighbour. I can count on one hand the number of conversations I've had with her, and none of them lasted more than five minutes. Allan sees her a bit more, because our homes share a front yard and they do the lawn mowing. I can't even call Ms Neighbour an acquaintance, because I don't know her name. (I once asked, but have forgotten.) We are friendly neighbours, nothing more.

The only reason I knew that H died was because Mr and Ms Neighbour came over with H's treats for our dogs. Allan went over to say thanks and got the story. So the next time I happened to be outside at the same time as Ms Neighbour, I spotted her through the cedars and said, "So sorry about H."

So Ms Neighbour told me the story of H's death, and how upset Daughter and Son-in-law are. In that context, she said, "The dog was so important to them, because they can't have children."


This was completely inappropriate, for so many reasons!

The pain of suddenly losing a beloved animal needs no further explanation. If the couple had children or not, I would expect the loss to be horrible.

And not having children requires no explanation! I don't have children. Does this woman assume I "couldn't"?

And this inappropriate disclosure isn't even her information to give. Why is she sharing this very personal information about her daughter, who I have never even met? Does she tell everyone her daughter and son-in-law can't have children?

My guess is Ms Neighbour is not comfortable with Daughter's childfree state. It probably requires explanation in her own mind. So she needs a little lag time between thought and speech!

I didn't say any of this, of course. I said something like, "We also don't have children, so I know how much her dogs mean to her." It was just the first thing I could think of. What I really wanted to say was, "Why the fuck are you telling me that? Does your daughter know you're such an idiot?"


Amy said...

Losing a pet is devastating whether you have no children or twenty children, one dog or twenty dogs. It's like saying to a parent whose child has died, "Well, at least you still have your other child(ren)." (I am not equating loss of a pet to loss of a child, of course. Anyone who adopts a pet knows that the pet's life span is most likely going to be shorter than the human owner's life span; we do expect our children to outlive us. But my point is that a loss is not softened by the fact that one has other loved ones, pets or humans, remaining.)

I agree that the woman was inappropriate, insensitive, and likely expressing her own discomfort/unhappiness with her daughter's childlessness.

Kim_in_TO said...

I'm not sure I'd attach such meaning to what she said. In dealing with loss - and talking about it - people often say inappropriate things. It can be compounded by having to talk to people you don't know too well.

I used to find advice columns fascinating, and every now and again they would touch on this subject of insensitive/inappropriate comments to those who have just experienced loss. Someone would say to a parent whose child had just died, "Well, at least it wasn't your husband!" There would always be additional responses to the columnist from many who had experienced similar comments.

In these situations, I believe people always mean well. But people who make comments like this may just not be very bright; they may lack tact; or they may simply be uncomfortable with strangers and grasp at the first thought that comes into their head. It may well be that your neighbour is not comfortable with her Daughter's inability to have children. But I wouldn't make that assumption myself.

Just wanted to add another perspective.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Kim. I really wasn't attaching any other meaning to the incident, just speculating.

Remember, she wasn't consoling me, and we weren't talking about not having kids. She just blurted it out about her daughter. I wasn't offended - I was appalled.

I so agree that many people say the stupidest things when consoling other people, but I'm not as generous as you about it. I don't know why more adults can't figure out how to simply say, I'm so sorry for your loss, and then shut up.

Amy said...

When my mother-in-law died last year, the rabbi met with the entire family before the funeral and warned our kids, who were very upset about losing their grandmother, to be prepared for insensitive comments. Every time someone said something stupid, we would all just sort of smile at each other and remember the rabbi's line about people putting on their "stupid hats" when they try and comfort mourners.

L-girl said...

Good job by that rabbi.

David said...

Good point about the "stupid hats" Amy, I will have to remember that one.

And of course some people are pretty inappropriate without the excuse of bereavement: a very dear relative (let's leave it at that), who just tolerated having dogs around the house when her own children were young, has been known to remark things like "I don't know why it would occur to anyone without children to ever have a dog." And this (the kicker) within hearing range of her own (adult, childless/ childfree) offspring + in-law who are devoted to their dogs. Yeesh.

David said...

Oh, and if you find that fence against inappropriate disclosures, you can patent it and get rich! Or maybe a spray-on version for social encounters?

L-girl said...

A spray-on version! Now that would be VERY useful!

johngoldfine said...

Stupid remarks dept:--well, I won't quite tell you what spurred this stupid remark because if I did, it would make you feel bad and is none of your business and why the fuck would I tell a bunch of strangers anyway, but my wife was asked by the former physician to someone very close to us how that someone was doing. Upon hearing the very bad medical news, the former physician said, without missing a beat, 'Let me tell you about how I broke my leg last year.'

A broken leg is to what my wife had just said as a firecracker is to an H-bomb. I know some docs have reputations for being clueless, but still....

johngoldfine said...

All I remember of Uncle Sidney is his hands in his lap fondling the heads of his two boxers. And all I remember of those boxers is their dreadful bobbed tails wagging in my five or six year old face as Sidney fondled those undershot jaws.

To my mother, those dogs were a source of amusement and contempt. Uncle Sidney and Aunt Shirley had no children, you see, and it was understood that they pathetically made up for that oddness and their loneliness by breeding dogs. Real people, complete people, bred children and therefore lived full, rich lives.

My mother made that so clear to me that even today, nearly sixty years since I last saw Shirley and Sidney, a day does not pass without me wondering aloud to my wife as I fondle a head or work a new trick: "Is it okay to love my dogs so much?"

I'm laughing as I ask, laughing that my mother (who hated dogs) should have gotten so far into my mind that I still half-doubt that it's okay to love dogs, laughing that a memory of two boxers' butts nearly 60 years old and completely inconsequential still lives so brightly in my mind.

L-girl said...

Well John, thanks for sharing that with this bunch of strangers. ;)

It's a great illustration of how our upbringing "gets in our heads" and won't get out.

I'm sorry about whatever it is your wife said, too. Clueless git of a doctor. You'd think it would be part of their job to keep their stupid-hats off.

(And it can never be wrong to love our dogs as much as we do. Which I know you know.)

Amy said...

The stupidest thing I ever heard someone say to a mourner was when a close friend of my mother said to her at my grandmother's funeral (my mother's mother, that is), "Well, you must be happy that you don't have that burden any more." It was true that my grandmother was not an easy person, but my mother still loved her, still mourned her death, and never quite was as close to that friend again. Talk about a stupid hat!

L-girl said...

Wow, saying that at a funeral! Yeesh.

On the other hand, when my father died, only my closest friends knew, and they all acknowledged that I would no longer have that burden in my life. I purposely didn't tell anyone else so I wouldn't have to hear inappropriate comments about my loss - the kind that are usually appropriate! :)

Amy said...

My mother's relationship with her mother was difficult and complicated, but from what you have said about your father, not at the same level. I am sure that my mother did feel relieved, but mostly felt very sad for her mother's hard life and probably somewhat guilty for not being able to make her happier. But whatever she felt, the friend's comment was, to say the least, not helpful.

I never know what to say, except to say, as you suggested, "I am so sorry for your loss." The other thing I often write in cards is, "I hope you can find comfort in your memories." Not sure that is always helpful or appropriate, but hopefully for most people, it is comforting to have memories that live on after the person has died.

johngoldfine said...

People want to cast in a moral light situations that don't really lend themselves to judgment to reassure themselves about their own health and completeness and safety. That makes them stupid.

Whenever my wife mentioned her mother's death of lung cancer, the first question most people asked was: 'Did she smoke?' The clear message was that if she smoked, no one really need feel much regret at her death since she brought it on herself. And, of course, my wife's fury was compounded by the fact that her mother had never had a puff of anything stronger than mountain air her whole life.

Similarly, I knew someone whose arm was broken by a fall from a horse, and the question kept being asked, 'Was she wearing a helmet?' If she was, she deserved sympathy. If she wasn't, she could be ignored and dismissed as a risk-taker who got what she deserved.

Not that wearing a helmet has ANYTHING to do with avoiding a broken arm!!!

L-girl said...

John, I completely agree with you, but I also add one note here. I think "Did she smoke?" is also that person asking for reassurance that lung cancer won't happen to her.

When I was in university, a student was raped (a stranger attack) in her own door room. People asked "Did she leave her door unlocked?" Quite unbelievable, off-the-charts insensitivity.

Some years later when I did anti-rape work - years after I had heard similar questions about my own assault - I gained some insight. Implicit in that "Did she leave her door unlocked?" is "Can I avoid that? If I lock my door, it won't happen to me, right?"

Because the randomness of cancer, riding accidents and rape is too frightening. It's more comforting to assign blame to the victim.

This is not to excuse it because I don't. It's inexcuseable. But knowing what might lie beneath the stupidity helps me deal with it.

johngoldfine said...

I fell off my new horse today, silly riding accident, stirrup suddenly caught on a snag of a stump. Whomp! On the ground, one second flat.

I was fine, just my pride bruised.

And, no, I wasn't wearing a helmet.


I do understand the fear of the unknown and terror of death underlying the 'did she smoke' question and I'm not unsympathetic to the fear and terror, just the stupidity, especially where it tends into cruelty.

Here's another angle. People's fear leads them to embrace crap science. Things like a cancer-prone personality, or abortions causing breast cancer, or the value of high colonic enemas in preventing colon cancer, etc. Every fear has a thousand corresponding myths, misunderstandings, confusions of cause and correlation, clingings to outmoded studies, and so on.

L-girl said...

Here's another angle. People's fear leads them to embrace crap science.

Yup! So true. People also embrace junk science and junk theory to excuse bad behaviour and absolve them of the need to change. Like imagining men and women are from two different planets, destined to make war or love, respectively. God I hate that shit.