Wednesday, 29 August 2012

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

When people are in pain others have a natural impulse to try to make them feel better.  Ultimately, there are no words to do this for some pain so we resort to platitudes and clichés for want of something better to say.  'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' is one such platitude that I came across today on twitter.  The words were slightly different but the underlying message was the same.  The person who posted seemed hurt and defensive when I said I was glad that that was the case for her but that it doesn't always work that way for everyone.  Rather than have a long discussion with her I let the subject lie, as I'm sure her intention was to be motivational rather than to be a trigger for a depressive.

Platitudes and clichés exist generally because there is some truth in them.  It is the very fact that they are oft repeated that make them clichés in the first place.  Indeed some people do find that their struggles in life have made them stronger people, better able to cope with future travails.  The crucial concept here though is that some people find this to be the case, not all.

My own struggles have had the opposite effect on me.  Many years ago I was someone who had fairly low self esteem but other than that I was a fairly together person.  I held down a responsible and stressful job, I had a good circle of friends and I generally felt that if something bad came along it would sort itself out in the end if I just kept on plugging my way through.  For the most part this approach to life worked well for me and as life threw me hurdles I cleared them or knocked them down but kept on running, never doubting that in the end everything would be alright.

Twenty years ago my husband and I made the decision to start a family, having been married for several years.  Nothing happened at first and, though upset, I assumed that eventually I would fall pregnant.  Nearly two years later I was delighted to find out I was expecting our first child.  I was overjoyed and scared and amazed and a multitude of other emotions I cannot even begin to describe.  I had a nagging fear throughout my pregnancy that something would go wrong; but, despite having symptoms of pre-eclampsia and needing an emergency caesarean section, my beautiful baby boy was born strong and healthy.  That moment when I first saw him was one of pure, unadulterated joy.  Nothing prepared me for the love I felt for him.  I thought I loved him from the moment I knew he was inside me, but that instant when I saw his face, his eyes so wide open in wonder that his wee forehead was wrinkled, I felt the most overwhelming rush of love and joy that I thought I would actually burst.

Just seven short weeks later my son died of meningicoccal septicaemia.  My world fell apart. Nothing could make this better.  There were no words of comfort that anyone could say that would make the world start turning again.  In a single day my safe, comfortable certainty that things will always work out in the end was shattered for ever.  Now I knew.  Some things are so bad that nothing can ever make everything work out alright.  There is no positive spin anyone can put on the death of a much wanted, totally adored child.  It didn't kill me but it didn't make me stronger.

I, of course, had to keep on living and no, that other much used cliché that 'time heals' isn't true either.  Time will never heal the wound that losing my son has left on my soul*, all it has done is give me time to learn how to make a place for my loss in my mind, learn how to live with it and not let it overwhelm me.

The death of my son is not the cause of my depression but it did set the scene in a way by removing that cornerstone to my life that things will always work out in the end.  As the years passed I have had many other major events, both good and bad.  I went on to have three more children, my marriage crumbled, my father died after surviving a triple bypass and several interventions to try and stem the cancer that finally claimed him, my youngest son was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and his challenging behaviour has been a constant in our family life for the past ten years, and through much of this I struggled to complete an Open University degree, something I'm very proud of but cost me a lot mentally.  None of this killed me but it didn't make me stronger.

The person I am today is one who knows that life doesn't always work out alright in the end.  I am someone who knows that, no matter how hard you work or how hard you try, you can't always achieve your dreams.  I cannot cope with conflict and try to avoid it at all costs, I struggle to deal with tradespeople and I have a phobia about using the telephone for all but the simplest of calls.  I am very hard on myself and I find myself wanting in many areas, I feel worthless, useless, unattractive and intrinsically unlovable, despite the evidence to the contrary that those closest to me do, indeed love me.  The pain in my life has not killed me but it has killed what little self-belief I had and taken away the stability on which my previous life was built.

So platitudes and clichés apart, what can you say to someone who is experiencing traumatic pain?  I wouldn't claim to have all the answers and certainly would not wish to speak for anyone other than myself but, for me, acknowledging that there is nothing to say to make it better is far better than trying to find the right words when there are none.  Being there for the person suffering says far more than words and showing you care by your actions beats well-meaning platitudes any day.

* I am irreligious but could not think of a more descriptive word for the part of me that religion calls the soul.

Links you may find useful

Black Dog Tribe 
Sands - Stillbirth and neonatal death charity 
Cruse Bereavement Care 
Meningitis Research Foundation - Know the symptoms, be aware


  1. Thank you for sharing something so difficult.
    Emma (

  2. That must have been a very difficult thing to write. I too hate the platitudes you get when people aren't sure what to say, but feel they have to say something. But, hey, I will keep that for my own blog.

    You take care.


    1. Thank you. I actually found it strangely cathartic in a way. The thing about losing a child as an infant is that, after the initial loss, as you life moves on it becomes an invisibe loss. Peope you meet later never know unless you mention it. In some ways it was comforting to spell out the some of the horror of it and get it "out there" as it were.