Five Tips For Asking About Limb Differences
Fay Keegan was only eleven years old when she was involved in a train accident that crushed her foot. After more than four decades in which she battled feelings of denial, anger, grief and loss, Fay decided to say goodbye to her foot and start anew. Fay regular shared her thoughts on her blog 'missing foot notes', where this article was first published in May 2017.
Ask Yourself Why You Are Asking
Other people with limb loss have told me they sometimes wonder why people ask what happened to them. Is it curiosity or finding common ground? It’s OK to ask me what happened to my leg, but not in the supermarket please! Sometimes I’m rushing.
It’s not unusual for people to ask me how I lost my leg and, without sharing the gruesome details, my answers vary. In specifics, not facts. It’s different for different people and places.
Sometimes I give a pat reply: I’ve had years of practice. And, other times, I might have a long chat and feel good about talking. The difference is often in the other person, the context, and what seems the reason for the question. Do I know them? Are they just curious? Are they caring? Are they a new friend?
But, sometimes the look on people’s faces when I tell them says they wished they hadn’t asked. Perhaps I should have invented a less traumatic story? Maybe I got carried away and said too much?
Here are five things to think about before you ask.
1. How well do you know the person?
Are you a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger passing by? This speaks to the reason for asking.
A friend may never have heard the full story. Knowing a friend’s history is part of understanding who they are, where they come from, what matters to them, why they react to certain things and not others. It’s an act of caring.
An acquaintance might be wanting to move towards friendship, or it might be curiosity. Ask yourself what’s my motivation here? Am I after vicarious thrills? A good story to tell? Or do I care about this person and want to get to know them. You’ll find your answer.
A stranger passing by? This is the hardest. Are you stuck together in a crowded bus and feel compelled to strike up conversation? Or are you asking for curiosity alone? Sometimes on a plane I will joke about my prosthetic leg when I am either struggling to step past another passenger to get to my seat or it’s the other way around. Last time I flew, someone trod on my fake foot and apologised and I laughed it off, saying I felt nothing, it’s a prosthetic limb. In that case I gave permission to talk. Take your cue from the other person and you’ll know what’s OK.
2. Where are you?
Social context is a significant consideration. Are you in a supermarket? Don’t ask!
Are you picking your kids up from school? What if it’s a gruesome tale you might hear? Do you want your children to have nightmares?
At a party? Maybe turn to a book on social etiquette for ideas instead. Try icebreakers like ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’, or ‘How do you know Sue and Bob?’ Or, my favourite, ‘Would you like another drink?’
Are you sitting over coffee or lunch with a friend and never heard the full story? Not a bad time.
Are you sitting in the Amputee Outpatients Department of your local hospital waiting to see your rehabilitation specialist about your prosthetic limb? Go right ahead, you have a common interest.
3. How much time do you have to listen?
There are many causes of limb loss. Some people have congenital limb deficiency. Acquired limb loss can be the result of diabetes, vascular disease, cancer, trauma and infection. There might even have been forty four years between the trauma and the limb loss. That’s a long story to tell!
Every person with limb loss has travelled a different path, no matter what’s the cause. And they will tell their story in different ways. Some will give a one line reply, others a dissertation. If you have asked, you might have to listen.
4. Do you really want to know?
Not all limb loss is pretty. Some tales are traumatic. Not just for the person who lived through the experience, for listeners as well.
People who have recently lost a limb are often suffering the emotional distress of loss and grief. Talking helps, but only with the right people and at the right time.
Sometimes there are good reasons people who’ve experienced traumatic limb loss don’t tell their stories—trauma overwhelms listeners as well as speakers. There are times I’ve been in the middle of telling the sanitised version of my story and I’ve had to stop because the listener looks like they’re about to pass out.
5. Ask yourself why you’re asking
Have you got a great story to tell? Many people living with limb loss say it’s not unusual for people to ask them how they lost their arm/s or leg/s only to be interrupted by the questioner—who seems eager to share their history of illness or trauma. I’ve heard many heartrending stories. Not all people with limb loss are trauma counsellors, especially in our spare time.
For a moment imagine four-limbed people are a minority group in the world. Walking out your front door every day you can’t help wondering how many people might ask you ‘How come you’ve got four limbs?’ Sounds crazy, right? Sometimes it can feel like that for us.
Those of us with a fraction of your limb total are not all alike, but many of us don’t mind, at the right time or in the right place, being asked what happened to one or two or more of our limbs.
There are helpful and unhelpful ways to ask questions. Some open conversation, others shut it down. One of the best ways is simple. Try prefacing your question with ‘do you mind’ or ‘is it OK if I ask?’
Carefully worded questions offer us a choice and will give you a clear response.
Guest post by Fay Keegan. Fay was a Social Worker more than thirty five years, primarily in counselling roles. Most recently, Fay worked with Limbs 4 Life Inc, in Australia, as National Volunteer Peer Support Manager. She left in February 2017 to write full time and continues to volunteer with Limbs 4 Life. She has written a memoir and her blog, Missing Footnotes, is about aspiring to achieve hopes and dreams in the face of trauma or adversity or emotional distress. And it’s about having the resilience to stay on track, no matter what. She has twice planned to walk the Camino since she became an amputee, but life had other ideas.