Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hurtful Words

When we lost our parrot, Barney, I wrote about our grief here in this blog. And I also wrote about it in my column in the weekly newspaper where I work, the Calistoga Tribune.

I have a loyal readership with my column, and am used to positive feedback. My picture runs with the column, and people in town know who I am, and often, as I walk through the grocery store aisles, or wait in the post office, locals approach me and open dialogues about things I have written, sharing their own stories. People also write letters to the editor, on occasion, or send in e-mails through our website.

After Barney's death, I received many heart-felt condolences, including several beautiful sympathy cards. But one morning, I opened the general in-box on my computer and found this note: "Tell Michelle that the column about her dead bird was pathetic. Nobody in town wants to hear about her personal misery."

I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. My grief was still new and raw at that point, and the insensitivity of the statement was a shock. Even worse was the generalizing "nobody in town" line - as if the writer was speaking not just for herself, but for many.

All at once, the numerous positive words disappeared. I could only see and feel this one woman's rancor and animosity. I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.

Luckily, as the days passed, I continued to receive wonderful support from animal lovers, people who wanted to hear stories of Barney, people who wanted to tell me about their own sweet animals, people who understood that I was going through a loss as real as if this were a child - Barney had been, after all, in the family for over 20 years.

But it made me wonder - why was I so easily unsettled by this woman's unkindness? Why was I so quickly thrown off-center by that one hostile voice, in the midst of so much support? Is there a human tendency to gravitate towards that which is most painful, instead of that which is most comforting? To expect the worst, instead of the best?

And I also wonder - what inspired her to lash out at me, a stranger, in that way? She had to have known that her words would be wounding. Is she just so angry and uncaring that she doesn't mind the damage she causes along the way?

The e-mail was signed. I did write back to her, when I had calmed myself, and simply said, "Tell me, was it just this column that bothered you, or have there been others?" My hope was to open a dialogue, to introduce myself to her as a human being, to give her a chance to say what was really going on.

She never replied.


  1. I am so sorry to hear about your friend Barney. Sounds like your words touch many people and I hope you keep writing - and that person that wrote that email... I am sorry for that person as well. Thankyou for sharing this story!

  2. I find myself gravitating towards those negative comments and "worst case" outcomes far too often. In my own case, I've noticed there's an underlying story that says, basically, "You deserve this. You did something wrong at some point, and now are getting your punishment." It's a totally fatalistic view, but I've been seeing lately how often it runs my life.

    As for these cruel exchanges, especially in e-mails and other online comments, it's hard to know what's going on. People hide behind their screens, and say these things, and then you're often left to deal with them. Sometimes, it's just a game being played to see if you'll get wound up. Sometimes, it's someone blowing off steam. Sometimes, it's someone who disagrees with what you wrote, but can't figure out why. Sometimes, it's something else you couldn't even guess.

    It's disappointing that this woman chose a death in the family as the point to take a stab at you. I've lost elderly pets myself, and after living with them twenty years, you have a bond and you experience grief - sometimes deep grief. I suppose all you can do with such nastiness is to let yourself experience a response, and then let it be.

    Take care.

  3. Hey, Michelle. That comment by the reader is so mean . . . receiving something like that would have made me feel vulnerable and upset too. The most helpful thing I have heard to help me protect myself from situations like that is to remember that whatever it is that spurred that person to write that to you . . . it's about her, not you. My grandfather used to say really mean things like that . . . it's like someone being vulnerable just created an itch in him to cause pain. I don't have a good explanation for why he was the way he was . . . but I wouldn't want to trade places and live inside his narrow emotional world. That you can be honest and love deeply are the sources of your rich internal world and also capacity for connection to others. The thing causing the disconnection with this one reader is on her side (the way she made this communication made that clear), and is out of your control. When stuff like this happens to me, I have trouble leaving it alone . . . hoping that there's a useful lesson in the painful message someone else is giving me . . . but I haven't actually had the experience of getting anything useful from continuing to try to communicate with someone like that. Best wishes, including wishes of self-care.

  4. Nathan, thanks for putting words to what I was struggling with - that sense that somehow I deserved the bad reaction. Hearing you say it about yourself made me realize how ridiculous it was - Of course you wouldn't deserve such treatment! Then the next step, was to apply that tenderness to myself. And it was also a good reminder that people do hide behind the computer screen. After the exchange with this woman, when talking to my partner Sabrina, I referred to her as "the sniper," because that's what it felt like - a sniper attack. Not playing fair at all.

    Bookbird, I am always glad to see your name on the screen. Thanks for your well wishes.

    AL, you are so right when you say generally someone's spite is about themselves and not about you. I know that - I just forget it in the moment. Thanks for the reminder. Like you, I am always looking for a lesson in the pain. Sometimes they do surface. If nothing else, I continue to learn more about myself, and my own reactions, needs, vulnerabilities. That's something.