Please stop telling the new paraplegic you know he'll walk be walking soon...

The marvelously athletic son of my friend was hit by an SUV while on his motorcycle a month ago. He’s paralyzed from the waist down.

It may or may not be permanent, of course. Miracles happen all the time and while each passing day makes it less likely, he certainly could experience a full recovery. Doctors are currently saying yes, there’s a 5% chance.

It may feel like a good thing to speak encouragingly of walking (skating, skiing, dancing…) again, but it’s really not. Completely apart from the issues of false hope and unrealistic expectations, which are certainly debatable, there’s the simple issue of expecations on this young man, and he could end up feeling much worse for “failing” to work hard enough or even simply will himself to perfect health and wholeness again, the way everyone seems to expect him to.

I am not suggesting that everyone give up hope for a full recovery, and certainly not that you speak of his paralysis as hopeless or permanent. I’m saying just stop being specific about what you think his recovery should include. Spinal cord injury is not the same as broken bones and torn flesh… it is an animal unto itself, and Christopher Reeve should be all the lesson you need on that score, because he was as tough, hard-working, willful person as you might ever meet.

Just tell him you know that his life will be wonderful again, because that’s the truth whether he is paraplegic or not.Tell him you look forward to enjoying your relationship with him when he’s feeling good again, because that’s true whether he is paraplegic or not. Tell him you know how strong he is and that he will through this tough healing, because that is true whether he is paraplegic or not.

Let him know (without spelling it out) that you love him and care about him and support him and believe in his ability to have a full, joyful life again whether he does so as a paraplegic or not. Don’t make him wonder if he has to be exactly the way he was in order to be good enough.

That is all.

I keep wanting ‘like’ buttons here. Failing that, yes, what you said.


Stoid I often find what you post here infuriating, but in this case I wholeheartedly support what you’ve written.

My father is a (retired) professor of rehabilitation science. This is one of his beefs. Example: in the 1980s he was tangentially involved with PC Philip Olds, a British policeman who had been shot through the spine while attending a robbery. He became a cause celebre, and the media hyped a lot of new innovations around this guy, and for sure he was given access to pretty much everything that medicine had at the time, including some of my dad’s department’s experimental technologies. I remember dad saying at the time “they need to stop telling that man that he’ll walk again. Unless there’s a major breakthrough, he won’t.” And he didn’t. Buoyed up by false hope (in many people’s opinion, including my own) and then plunging into desperation, PC Olds took a fatal overdose in 1986.

That’s like saying “Completely apart from which car manufacturer is best, which is certainly debatable, Ford is the best on the market.” I mean, didn’t you just essentially say “no hope is better than false hope”?

No. This guy is going to hope he will walk again regardless of what anybody says. Stoid is talking about the effect of what other people say, and I think she’s right. It’s very hard to think of what to say to someone in these situations, but you don’t want to create a situation where a person feels like they have failed if they can’t heal from an injury or a disease. Let’s be honest here: nobody who is talking to this guy knows if he is going to walk again or not, and whether he walks or not is mostly out of his control. He needs love and support, and telling him everything is going to be OK is tempting, but that’s not the best way to go.

No, she didn’t. She said that unrealistic hopes can be a burden and can leave someone feeling that they failed.

Those with serious injuries and illnesses need to change their hopes and expectations. Walking may not be a reasonable hope, but a good life can be a reasonable hope.

In the same vein, someone with a terminal illness is best off if they can change their hope from surviving to something like having the best quality of life while they live.

Chessic, I think you completely missed Stoid’s point.

It’s sort of like when the religious types go on and on about the healing power of prayer and stuff, and when the afflicted person doesn’t leap out of the wheelchair dancing there’s this unspoken implication that somehow he wasn’t faithful enough, or didn’t pray hard enough. In other words, it’s that person’s fault they’re not beter.

It’s sort of like when people talk about battling cancer and being strong and giving examples of people who “beat” cancer… with the unspoken sub-text that if you don’t get better you’re somehow weak or cowardly or didn’t fight hard enough.

It’s fine to say “I hope one day you’ll walk again” but not to say “you WILL walk again!” One is a hope, the other is a prediction that may well be wrong.

Ha…no surprise that the three of us who answered have dealt with tragic illnesses of our own or loved ones. It sure teaches you, doesn’t it?

Agree completely, Stoid.

I agree. Sometimes no matter how hard someone works, the unfortunate reality is that the person is never going to get better, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t find a way to live a happy life with their circumstances.
Unfortunately, many people are completely clueless about the appropriate way to act in situations like serious illness/injury (not to mention the stupid things people say to someone who is grieving a death). I think people say this stuff because they feel like they need to say SOMETHING but they really don’t know what.

I agree absolutely with the OP.

Years ago I took a job between IT gigs that, I’m almost ashamed to admit, involved telemarketing. :o (You do what you have to to make a buck).

While I was there we had a sort of training conference where people from the company’s offices all over the area all got together at a hotel for what were basically a bunch of pep talks.

One of them consisted of a movie about the apparently true story of a man who had become paralyzed in some sort of accident, I don’t remember the details. His doctors has told him that he would never walk again. Of course, he didn’t believe them and fought and struggled till he was able to walk again.

The explicitly stated moral was that if you ignore the naysayers in your life you can accomplish anything! It implicitly implied that if you failed (if he hadn’t gotten out of that wheelchair) then you (he) were a failure who was too lazy or lacked the willpower to succeed.

This, of course, is bullshit. This man was one in a thousand or a million who had a misdiagnosis, or some unusual circumstance that made walking again possible in spite of what current medical knowledge said.

The worst part of this was that one of my coworkers was a partially paralyzed man in a wheelchair and there he was, with the rest of us, when they showed this idiotic film. :mad:

This is the crux of the problem.

What do you say to someone who has suffered a life-altering injury?

What do you say to someone who’s husband committed suicide?

What do you say to a person who’s child just died?

These are relatively rare encounters, and it is difficult to think of anything better to say than the silly insensitive comments we hear so often. The alternative is silence, pretending the event never happened.

As far as I know from personal experience and talking with friends, most people do want to talk about their loss, but most friends and acquaintances pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

When my brother took his life (decades ago), there was a huge amount of awkwardness in any social interactions around me, meanwhile I was walking in a fog for six months or so. Insensitive comments just rolled off my back. I really didn’t feel that the person proffering such comments intended malice.

That said, I do try to learn what is the “appropriate” thing to say in such circumstances. I want to be a supportive friend and not an insulting jerk.

“I was sorry to hear about your [life-altering injury/illness] and I hope you can get out of the hospital/rehab center soon.”

“I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Please don’t blame yourself, and don’t hesitate to ask for help in coping if you need that”

“I am so sorry to hear about your tragic loss.”

Then again, I’ve actually had to deal with all of the above more htan once. AH, experience!

The best thing to do would be just expressing your condolences. There’s a human tendency to want to put the best face on things and tell people it’s going to be OK, but the problem is that it can create the pressure Stoid is talking about. And it’s not very helpful if you’re telling people things that you know and they know are not true. It’s not malicious, it just doesn’t help.

My point is, few people have considered how they would respond to such situations beforehand. They are taken by surprise and they are awkward and shocked, and may respond poorly. It’s easy to judge someone else’s clueless comment, but we can easily fall into this.

A step in the right direction would be to consider the fairly safe responses from Broomstick above (and other posters of course), and provide a less hurtful comment if faced with such a situation. And if we feel like it wouldn’t be intruding, asking our friend what’s on their mind and simply letting them talk can do wonders.

+1 for the OP.

One thing that I found (and still do) frustrating dealing with other people and their expectations regarding me, my spinal cord injury and my attitude towards it is peoples’ assumption that one must be ever-vigilant in their belief and actions of walking again in order to be deemed “not giving up”. As if a paraplegic or quadraplegic’s life is reduced to the sole goal of overcoming the injury and walking again. And anything less than that means the person has given up and has resigned themselves to a lesser life.

Bullshit. I am not going to let my injury define me. I was a young kid when I was injured. I had (and have) a life to lead. I wasn’t going to let a silly fantasy put that life on hold. Because then I’d miss out on my own life. And you don’t get redo’s at life.

In discussing this issue at length I recalled the first time I think I was exposed to this idea… does anyone remember the film “The Other Side of the Mountain” about the skier Jill Kinmont, who became a quadraplegic? Well this scene made a big impact on me. (It’s the first three minutes of the clip and for me the sound is out of sync but it’s still uncerstandable…watch until she falls asleep to get the whole picture)

Unfortunately, for a lot of people that really is their viewpoint.

I think an ah-hah! moment came for me when an on-line friend said once that she didn’t feel confined to a wheelchair, her wheelchair was liberating because it enabled her to get around without dragging her, and I quote, “dead ass around by my elbows”. A well-designed wheelchair made her life easier than it would be otherwise, not harder.

Well, that and her hand-control Ferrari race car. I think you can figure out which driver she is in this picture. You can tell a lot about a person by their reactions to seeing her behind the wheel - it’s tends to be either “OH, that poor crippled thing!” or “Man, that’s a hot chick in a fast car!” Guess which group she prefers to spend time with?

I agree it’s a difficult situation and people don’t actively prepare for it - why would they? But you almost always have the opportunity to think before you speak, and when you have that opportunity, it’s worthwhile to consider the implications of what you are saying. When you hear something terrible or are talking to someone who is going through something awful, it is easy to fall back on formulaic statements of encouragement. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

I’m not sure if this is what you mean, but I think it’s possible that people are just overexposed to feel-good stories. The guy who gets told he’ll probably never walk again who does - good for him. What else can you say? I’m sure his determination helped him. But so did good luck and a lot of other things, and you can’t infer from the success of one determined person that another person who did not have that success is less determined. That’s where this turns into a blame-the-victim issue. Some people go through a crisis and manage to remain positive. Others just manage to hide it from certain people. :wink: But most go through the normal ups and downs you would expect, and that’s not a failing on their part. I think we’ve gotten used to that idea of the always-upbeat, never discouraged person who triumphs through willpower alone. It’s comforting for the rest of us, subconsciously, because it takes the randomness away. Unfortunately, that’s crap.