what not to say

As a new amputee I came across people who felt it was important that I know others with injuries like mine. We would have that in common, so we were destined to be friends. This amused me. Just because we were amputees didn’t mean we were immediately bound together, having long meaningful conversations over glasses of wine, forever friends. Sharing similar injuries doesn’t create chemistry. Yet, people asked if I knew Joe, an amputee living in a town not far from me, and if I didn’t know him, would I like to meet him?

However, there were two women in physiotherapy that I especially liked and admired. One of the women was a police officer, Laurie, that had been shot in the leg in the line of duty, resulting in an amputation below the knee. The other woman, Gail, lost her leg above the knee to cancer. We were in physiotherapy from Monday to Friday, so it was easy to get to know each other, a ripe climate of opportunity to be understood. We became quite friendly and every once in a while the three of us visited the resident social worker together. It was a time to talk, to be there for each other, and, sometimes, air grievances.

“Do you know what makes me crazy?”


“When people say everything happens for a reason.”

Everyone nodded.

“Why do people say God won’t give you more than you can handle? This is way more than I can handle.”

“The other one I can’t take is when people say this will make you stronger. What does that mean?”

We were in agreement. What did that mean?

I said, “I really hate it when people keep asking me if I’ve tried aloe.” This is something that still makes me laugh, that with all the medical intervention and the best surgeons in BC working on me no one had thought to use aloe. Like it was some super cure. Good for small cuts and sunburns. Not for burns so deep multiple surgeries were required to save your life. My friend, Jenn, summed up my thoughts well when she said, “There isn’t a plant or bottle of lotion in the world big enough.”

“What about when people have foot pain and tell you they can relate?”

We laughed. Hard.

I shared a story where a girl I didn’t know well said she thought of me while shaving her legs. She told me how lucky I was I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. She smiled. She said it with absolute innocence. She said it in front of a large group of friends at a pub. There was an awkward silence until someone, bless them, changed the subject.

“People say the dumbest things.”

People meant well. The three of us acknowledged that. We’re at a loss for words, so we rely on cliches and old advice that was never wise advice to begin with. Everybody wants to help. We wondered why people couldn’t stick with “I’m sorry” or tell the truth, “This is terrible.” It was always a relief to me when it was called as it was. Even saying, “I don’t know what to say” was welcomed. Everyone has found themselves in a position where you’re stuck, where words aren’t enough.

We found things in common with each other that went beyond our amputations. Our willingness to face our fears, to get on with it, and the dumb things that people say were what brought us together. From Monday to Friday I could look around the room and take comfort that someone knew what it was like to be me.

19 thoughts on “what not to say

  1. linda sue

    People! AHHHH! ridiculous! But my question is- DID you try aloe???Sweet Jaysuz! How can you even respond. I guess people have to reel it in- make it smaller – it’s rather like inventing a religion,something comprehensible and justify-able- can’t handle it otherwise. Smallness…and yeah it sucks bigtime!

    1. heidi

      You’re hilarious! Yes, I tried aloe and vitamin e oil. I was given that, too. Someone had used it on the two inch scar on their leg and said it was amazing. It took everything in me not to lift up my shirt and say, “Yeah, that’s not going to work for me.”

      Reeling it in…I like that. I think most people want to help and just don’t know what to say. So, they say the first thing that comes to mind and didn’t try that whole think before you speak thing. I also believe that some really thought aloe was somehow miraculous.

  2. amanda v

    oh goodness! i really hope the shaving legs comment wasn’t from me! 😉 i like your writing, don’t always comment but I will for sure be buying your book!

  3. Toriz

    When I had my second eye out I encountered a lot of, “I know how it feels,” comments. I’m one of those people who generally speaks my mind, so would reply with, “really? How can you when you have both your eyes, and they work?” I know it was mean, but it was true, and I had enough of people claiming they knew better than me how I felt from a few nurses I had issues with at the hospital (like the one who insisted that growing up with my then 24 year old brother – who lost his sight at age 2 – and dealing with the gradual loss of my sight my entire life – bearing in mind I was then 23 – gave me less experience with what a blind person needs than her few years of working on a ward for people with eye problems). I didn’t like the so called understanding, and I hated the pitty, so I never took either well.

    I earned cheers and laughter from one thing I did during an appointment… I didn’t do it for that reaction though. I was fed up with being told I had to have my vision checked when I had none to check. Fed up of going through the same useless routine. So, I took out my artificial eyes, and held them out to the nurse saying, “if you want to check my eyes, here they are,” and insisting I was not getting up from my seat just so that my non-existant sight could be checked. I was never asked to come and have my vision checked again… After that they agreed it was a useless thing to try to check my sight after all (as I’d been trying to tell them every week for a good month or more by this point).

    I’m usually a patient person, but with the frustration of dealing with adjustments to how things were, combined with the attitudes of people, there have been moments over these past couple of years when the sting Scorpios are known for has been very evident, if you know what I mean. So, if you managed to avoid nasty retorts when you got that kind of attitude, then you did better than me, despite having more reason than me to give such responses.

    1. heidi

      You did not?! You took out your eyes?! I’m cheering for you too. That’s awesome and I mean that in a ‘you kick ass’ kind of way. 🙂
      I was in for a surgery a couple of years after the car crash – it was a small surgery – but I would be anesthetized for it. That meant I was gowned and the legs came off. A nurse came in to tell me it was time to get over to the surgical bed. I couldn’t because I didn’t have my legs on. She was all impatient and sighing. I told her I couldn’t because I was an amputee and my legs were in another room. Needless to say, she felt bad. Now, I just find it funny.

  4. LesleyAnn Photography

    Love this one… Love all of them but I particularly love this one because we were there 🙂 Although, Jenn made the book, WHAT!!! LOVE IT! You should have used her pseudo name then we’d have had to buy her a steak dinner 🙂 Ms Sanchez!

    1. heidi

      Haha! Her pseudo name! I forgot all about that. Or I could have said, rhymes with flenn.

      Oh, I remember you being there, but it’s Shabbir’s face that is forever etched into my brain. The holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening smile frozen on his face.

  5. Ally Ogston

    I’ve been a RAK for the last 15 years or so, I’ve run into all these comments. Perhaps 10 years ago some woman offered me advice on a cream to use (I forget the name, (it just went WHOOP over my head), so yes, I relate to ALL of this. Another lovely one is “oh shame, I was on crutches for 3 months, I know what it’s like”. As for friends…yes, been offered a few…. However, I must offer up to you….I like to drink copious glasses of wine, and perhaps have meaningless conversations…so maybe we could connect :)) Love your blog, I will be a regular reader!

    1. heidi

      I loved reading this! I so get it…the cream, the crutches, the I-can-relate of it all.

      It is so nice to meet you! I enjoy meaningless conversation and a glass of wine or two…I’m in!

  6. Toriz

    I bet she was a bit more patient after you pointed that out. 😉

    Goes to show how well doctors and nurses pay attention to the details of medical notes, doesn’t it?

  7. christy

    What a great part of your story Heidi. Are you still friends with them? After reading all the comments I had to go back up and re-read the post. The comments are fantastic too.

    I mean really, people. The shaving legs comment made my skin crawl. Ugh.

    Loved this one. Can’t wait to read more!

    1. heidi

      Gail’s cancer returned and, sadly, she passed away while I was still at rehab. I haven’t kept in touch with Laurie for a while now, but the last time we were in contact she was doing well. They really made my time there better!

  8. Kate Coveny Hood

    I think people need to decide for themselves what makes them feel better about their situation. “Everything happens for a reason…New lease on life….blah blah blah.” The one that has always worked for me is “it could always be worse,” but I don’t assume that everyone else benefits from that. I would never look at a woman who lost her job and say, “well it could be worse, you could have lost one of your kids.” No matter how true it may be – it’s completely inappropriate and irrelevant. I’m so glad you had other friends who not only understood but “knew.”

    1. heidi

      Yes! I absolutely agree that “people need to decide what makes them feel better…” In fact, I have a post I’m working on that addresses this. If I ever get over this weird flu thing that has some serious staying power maybe I’ll actually finish it.

  9. jessica

    I ditto the how the shaving comment made my skin crawl It’s so awful I laughed b/c just when I thought people were dumb, I find out they are even fucking dumber. God that is sad

  10. IntenseGuy

    I truly hate cancer…

    Human inanity and cliche’s are nearly as bad. Being thoughtless, like the nurse that expected you to somehow “waltz” to the bed, or ToriZ needing an vision exam borders on incompetent and is without doubt unprofessional…

    I’m enough of a pollyanna to think (and hope) most people mean well – its just they don’t put their brains in gear before opening their mouths.

    Heidi… by “err grievances” did you mean “air grievances”? I don’t want to publically “proof read” your stuff or embarrass you by doing so – if you’d prefer, I won’t do it again.

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