Person scowling at people's sad face reactions.

Please Don't Give Me "Sad Face"

When you give me that look I know you mean well. I know you’re trying to show me that you sympathize. I know you might not be able to help it or even realize that you’re doing it. But please don’t give me “Sad Face.”

What is "Sad Face?"

“Sad Face” is what I’ve taken to calling the look others tend to give me when they learn my son has cystic fibrosis. Sad Face is the look that says, “Poor thing, I’m so sorry” and, “Go on, I’m sure you need someone to listen right now.”

You know it when you see it, but I’ll try to describe this look. It’s the turned down eyebrows, head slightly tilted to one side, mouth in a bit of a frown, quietly nodding look that the listener gives as they actively show you they’re sympathizing while graciously giving you their pity. I do not like it.

Is it pity? Sensitivity?

I’ve work-shopped a few names for this look. It’s full of pity (Pity Face?), and I always read it as someone showing me they know I must be sad so they’ll be sensitive to that fact (“I’ll Treat You with Kid Gloves” Face?). But I have never said to someone, “Please understand how constantly upset I am that my child has cystic fibrosis. Please pity us for our stressful and difficult lives!” So I don’t like when people seem to respond as if that’s the message. They assume I must be sad and the polite thing to do is respond appropriately, so they make the Sad Face.

Sad Face is not new

Sad Face isn’t some phenomenon that has appeared in my life since CF entered into it. When a beloved but sick grandparent died, people responded with Sad Face. When I got my heart broken for the first time, my family gave me Sad Face. In these situations, it seemed appropriate. Something bad had happened and I was distressed – thank you for noticing.

But this is different. When I tell someone my son has cystic fibrosis, I’m just telling them a fact about my kid. I’m telling them one piece of an ongoing story filled with many emotions. But I’m not telling them I’m sad. Receiving Sad Face in response to this information is, at worst, irritating and I usually let it go. That’s because I learned better from my first CF-related Sad Face mistake.

My Sad Face mistake

Over the course of my pregnancy, a series of ultrasounds, combined with the fact that my husband and I are both CF carriers, led us to believe the baby would most likely have cystic fibrosis. We didn’t have a diagnosis until after he was born, but we were fairly certain and started to prepare ourselves.

One night, when my husband was particularly emotional about it, he approached me with his Sad Face. He had been doing a lot of CF research, and “worst-case scenario” thinking was getting him down. I’ll admit that this wasn’t a reflexive Sad Face – he was really going through it and just needed some conversation and comfort, but I wasn’t having it that night.

I got into how I wasn’t going to be sad for this baby. This baby had awesome parents, a great big brother, a warm home, and a wonderful support system, and there could hardly be a better life for a baby with a chronic health condition to be born into. We would love and care for this baby, he would have an amazing life and there was no reason to be sad. You’re not going to upset me so don’t look at me like that and STOP BEING SAD!

This was the wrong reaction. He was on this journey too, and just because he was experiencing it differently than I was didn’t make him wrong. Eventually, I gained my composure, we talked about how he was feeling and worked through it. But that experience taught me a lot about what I could handle when it came to emotions about my son’s CF. I was feeling a lot of things, but I honestly wasn’t sad about it. I couldn’t control other peoples’ feelings, but I hoped they weren’t sad either. Most importantly, I didn’t want the baby to be sad.

My son's life

As it turns out, my son’s life is pretty typical. He’s 18 months old now, so he’s walking and talking. He’s our second child, so he’s defiant and goofy. He loves being outside and doesn’t care when he gets messy. He has the clearest blue eyes, so he gets a lot of compliments and already knows how to flirt.

He's smart

He’s smarter than I realize, so when he hears us talking about “treatment time” he runs to his box of medicine and supplies, points to his percussors, and taps on his chest with his palms. Then he usually runs away yelling “NO!” because life has so many more interesting things for him to do besides manual chest PT.

He's mischievous

He’s impatient and sneaky, so wish me luck with that. He plays in our toy kitchen with his older brother and chases after the dogs that live next door. He HATES tomatoes and will give the nastiest stink eye to anyone trying to trick him into eating one.

He's funny

He calls his father “Daddy” and hugs him with a smile. He calls me “Daddy” too and laughs hysterically when I exaggerate a pout and repeat “Mommy!” trying to get him to call me by my beloved title. I know he can do it, but he won’t. He thinks he’s so funny.

He's happy

His life is busy with clinic appointments and chest PT and changing dosages of changing medications and his mother obsessing over every cough and yes, even the occasional hospital stay. But his life is also very normal.

When I tell you my child has cystic fibrosis, I can handle your questions, your confusion, even your fears. But I’m not sad. My son isn’t sad. My son’s life certainly isn’t sad. So I’m sorry, but I can’t handle your Sad Face.

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