Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Pity, Party of One: Why It's So Popular With Parents Like Us

Photo image courtesy of Comaniciu Dan via 123rf.com
"...Encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone."
1 Thessalonians 5:14, NIV

The eyes roll and the phone messages go unanswered.  It's the "Debbie Downer" friend acting a little too needy again.   She takes up hours of time talking about her troubles, indignant about the inequities that beset her.  She has troubles in her relationships with the schools, the doctors, the church, the neighborhood, and even in her extended family.  Her marriage is strained.  Her finances are always under water.  And she seems to be perpetually stuck at therapy or doctor appointments.  Life is chaotic at best and rarely seems to improve for any prolonged period of time.

She is me -- The parent of a child with a chronic illness or special needs.

While this may seem like a bit of a false caricature or exaggeration, we have all either been there or know someone who seems stuck in a pity party.  Our tendency is inclined to blame the party's sole attendee, suggesting that they need to get some professional help (which may be true to a certain degree).  However, I would like to be the fly in the ointment, urging us to look at this phenomenon from a different angle.

What has had me ruminating lately about this popular, albeit painful, event is the darkness that has surrounded my own personal life these past few years.  I am one of the fortunate ones.  I have a strong faith to uphold me.  Yet, how I see myself treated in these relentless years makes me feel indignant for others like me.  As I sit here in isolation, the reasons for the popularity of the pity party seems to come all too clear to me.  I suddenly understand why there are so many embittered parents, living in perpetual hopelessness.  It comes down to a gaping void, left widely ignored by those commanded to step up.

The Bride of Christ is too busy attending her own coffee klatch to be bothered with the parent struggling through the every day weight of raising a child with a chronic illness, disability, or special need.

I'm sorry.  Have I stepped on your toes?  Offended your sensibilities?

Well, then allow me to explain to you where I would come up with such an outlandish statement.  From where I sit in leadership, I see The Church (not a church in particular) still acting like a high school clique.  Oh, the "beautiful people" raising children with special needs will engender some response from Christians -- the skinny, physically attractive, financially sound, well-connected parents who have enough help from family, and who always have a smile painted on their faces.  However, those people are far and few between.  The vast majority of parents like us receive about as much ongoing support and TLC as a potted plant. 

While Christians shake their heads at a culture obsessed with quick-fixes and a 24 hour news cycle, The Church is not much better when it comes to enduring compassion.  We are glad to deliver a meal, then move on.  We might even hold a family's hand through a year of cancer treatment or 6 months of hospice.  But chronic illness, disability, and special needs are the gifts that never stop giving.

It's as simple and as hard as this one sincere question asked repeatedly over the years:  "How are you and your family doing?"

That question might be asked when there is a recent hospitalization or initial job loss, but the faithful stop asking shortly thereafter.  Parents raising kids with these challenges need that question asked again and again and again over a lifetime.  Most of the time, the answer to that question will be "Great," or even, "Fine."  But Christians never bother to ask this question of others for fear of what the answer might be.  They are afraid we might require too much of them.  Our lives are too depressing to be around.  (How do they think it feels for US?)  We're too messy, too complicated, to uncomfortable to be around.

They want a tidy little missions box that they can step into and then leave whenever they tire of their charitable acts.  They want to go with the cool kids on that short-term trip overseas.  They want to look like the secular social change crowd, swooping down and snapping a photo with the poorest, neglected individual of different skin color and language they can find, but then return to their largely convenient middle class world of comfort.

Still, the parent raising a child with difficulties remains in their own backyard neglected, marginalized, and ignored.  The World marches onward, failing to realize they are one emergency room visit away from being just like that mother or father.  That parent doesn't get a break.  They can't just call the sitter down the street to watch their child on the autism spectrum.  The medical bills flood in, and this parent doesn't even know what a vacation is, never mind flying to a flashy destination.  While other kids are sending in college applications, these parents are wondering what adulthood might look like for their son or daughter who cognitively remains a child.  

This all might be a bit easier to bear if someone, anyone in The Church had found these individuals worthy of their time, if someone had built real community with them.  The future might look a little brighter if connections had been made in small groups or if the hip NextGen ministry had just included their kid as a normal part of life.  Jesus might be real to these folks if they had actually seen Him in the presence of those who claim to be His passionate followers.  They might not look at the pro-lifers with disdain if those same people decrying abortion would actually offer some support after the baby is born.

I apologize if this all seems too harsh, too negative, too angry.  This is the sea of lost souls I peer into every day, wishing more people would step up beside me to join in the long-term mission of offering them Hope.

The bottom line is, Pity, Party-of-One is so popular with parents like us because no one else cares enough to attend.  I am not saying that we need pity, but our emotions quickly and easily dissolve into self-pity when we are starved of compassion.  The Body of Christ is uniquely positioned to step up and offer that compassion in a long-term, life-changing way.  It would be great if it would actually do it.

PRAY:  El Roi, You are the "God Who Sees Me".  You see each one suffering in isolation and marginalization right here in our midst.  Now activate Your people to reach out and do the hard work of loving and building community with these families long-term.  Remind us not to do the expedient or easy things, but the deep work necessary to reflect Your glory to a hurting world.  May we look more like Jesus and less like the self-absorbed culture of our modern world.

~ Barb Dittrich

* For further reading: A small church doing big things…Ellen Stumbo


  1. Agreed. And good reminders. I think also this applies to new moms, too. Once I shared I had postpartum, people stopped calling/stopping over. Isn't that the opposite of what should happen? Felt more worthless...

    If you're too busy to go out of your way for something small, you're too busy in general.

    1. Thanks, Kaaren. I agree that it only takes something small like asking, "How is your family doing?". Unfortunately, I think people are afraid that if they open that door, they'll have too much dumped on them. I guess we have our work cut out for us in educating people that a simple gesture, even "the ministry of presence," is something immensely helpful to us that will bless them with minimal inconvenience.

  2. Most convicting, challenging, true, honest, flat-out greatest thing you've ever written. Xo

    1. Thank you, sweet Tammie! I now name you the acting president of my fan club! HA!

      All joking aside, I pray that you are daily blessed with the gift of simple acts of kindness by the Jesus-lovers around you.

  3. I came across this while I was surfing the web. My son, who has Down Syndrome is 34 years old. This brings back memories. Well said! Thank you.