When Bad Things Happen to Good Friends

(A version of this article appeared in the March 1999 issue of Working Mother.)

On May 18, Chris Farthing took her 12-year-old son, Drew, to the doctor because he had a cold. “The doctor decided to do a blood test for mono,” Chris says, “because he thought Drew seemed sluggish.” At 4 p.m. initial test results “showed leukemia cells. That’s when Drew’s world, and mine, turned upside down.” Mother and son went directly to Childrens’ Hospital in Denver where specialists began running more tests.

Chris, a single mom, is a maintenance engineer at Lucent Technology. “I couldn’t call my office until the next day to even tell everyone where I was,” she says. “Your first priority is Drew,” one associate responded, “don’t worry about your caseload. We’ll redistribute it.” “What can we do?,” asked another. “Please keep us informed.” said a third.

Tests confirmed Drew has AML leukemia. Treatment started immediately. Chris and Drew now spend five or six grueling weeks in the hospital for his chemotherapy; then, when his white cell count recovers enough, they return home for several weeks until he’s well enough to start the next round of treatments.

How have friends and work associates helped during these bad months? Chris says first of all, “By just being there. That’s the biggest thing.” Then, she says, the office staff has taken on her workload; raised funds to get Drew toys, like Legos and games; one person brings Drew the new issues of “Thor” comic books; and people in her department “call every few days to see what I need. After each chemo, one of them gets whatever junk food Drew craves.” Close friends, Chris says, have formed prayer chains; have placed notices on the Internet for sports memorabilia for Drew; and have teamed-up so one friend stays with Drew, while the other takes Chris out to lunch. Drew’s teacher from the Lutheran school he attends comes and visits, sometimes just to play Monopoly and be there.

What isn’t helpful? “People who share cancer stories.”

When bad things happen to good friends and work associates we’re often at a loss to know what to do. Should we call? Should we stop by? Should we write a note? Send flowers? Take food?

Although Becky Carr, 38, earned her master’s degree in counseling at seminary, she learned first-hand that grief is an extremely lonely trip you can never be really prepared for. Becky, a magazine editor for pharmaceutical company Hoechst Marion Roussel’s employees’ publication, and her husband, The Rev. Dr. Steven Carr, 42, had planned a special trip for their son Joseph’s seventh birthday. “Joe wanted to go to Silver Dollar City in Branson” from their Kansas City home. The morning after arriving, October 11, 1997, Becky took Joe and Leah, 2, to breakfast, leaving Steve to get ready. When she and the children returned to their motel room, Steve was in a coma. He had brain surgery for a cancerous tumor on October 16, and died December 2. At the same time, Steve’s mother, for whom he was solely responsible, was in intensive care. She died October 23, never knowing of her son’s illness.

Steve had been supervisor of pastoral care at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, where he taught people how to care for others in need. At home he’d been the major child care giver and the family’s emotional anchor. Becky’s world, after 18 wonderful years of marriage, came apart.

“I believe people are basically good,” Becky says of the month before Steve died, “and it was comforting when people would ask, ‘Is it O.K. to talk about this?’” Co-workers who showed up and sat with Becky while Steve was having surgery; and a cousin came, who arrived after everyone had gone to her mother-in-law’s funeral, saying she’d packed to stay overnight, “’If it’s O.K.,’” helped cancel loneliness. Especially helpful, too, Becky says, was a family friend who called and said, “I’d like to borrow Joe for the evening.” He started a practice of taking Joe on regular outings “to do Dad things.”

There is no dressed rehearsal for grief. And maybe in our 12-step culture, we don’t understand that grief isn’t linear. It doesn’t have a timetable. It has a beginning, but not an end.

When it was apparent that Steve Carr’s illness was terminal, friends and former students began to send flowers and telephone. “They wanted to tell Steve how thankful they were for his contribution to their lives. I said to Steve, ‘This feels like you’re dead already. Is this bothering you?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s very gratifying.’”

Becky also remembers the comfort she received from the heart-felt notes people wrote; work associates who arrived on their lunch hour with baskets of treats for the children; and those who just came to be with her. “The specific offers of help,” Becky says, were best, “because I could say yes or no, but beyond that I was over-taxed.” She was thankful, too, for the prayers; her manager’s offer of a financial planner when she asked; and the 18 people from her department and their spouses who took a busy pre-Christmas Saturday and drove the three hours to attend Steve’s funeral. Then there were the two memorial services which were videotaped and saved to one day show the children.

Leah’s pre-school made special arrangements to take care of her when Becky needed to go the hospital, make funeral arrangements, or take care of business. And both the children’s schools sent plants — a small pine tree for Joe — with the children’s names on them. At the funeral and the memorial services friends and relatives shared their memories of Steve. Those memories, Becky says, will always be cherished.

In January Becky returned to work full-time, but she couldn’t get organized, couldn’t concentrate, and suffered short-term memory loss. Co-workers stepped in and helped her set up a system of sharing vital information and posting reminders. “For those first three months, I said, ‘I can handle this.’” But then, she says, although she’d lived in the area all her life, and in the same home for six years, “I’d get lost. I would know I was close to the house when I was driving, but I couldn’t remember how to get there.”

Months later on a business trip, she says, she walked into a meeting and they brought out a wheelchair, which triggered memories of Steve during those weeks before his death, “and I couldn’t handle it. I had to leave the meeting. I even had to come home early.

“For a long time I felt like my home was booby trapped. I never knew what I would find that would upset me. I had a lot of medical supplies from when Steve had home health. I thought I’d gotten all those things out, but one day I found rolls of gauze in the closet, and I came unglued.”

Do things get better? Yes, Becky says. She and the children have now moved closer to her parents, so the children can spend more time with them. The forgetfulness is better, “except in times of stress, like now I’m facing the first anniversary of Steve’s illness, and trying to plan for Joe’s birthday party.”

The first step when someone is grieving is to accept the loss. “Acknowledge it,” says Doreatha Lack, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in San Francisco. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” is an honest start. “Or, “How are you doing?” Offer to do something concrete that needs to be done: “Can I screen your telephone calls?”

Don’t refrain from saying something because you’re afraid of hurting the person, she advises. Grief is painful, but pain isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Nor is embarrassment. Ignoring the loss, avoiding the person, is worse.

“There is no ‘right’ thing to say,” says Lack. “Be available. And don’t try to move the mourner away from the primary experience. Let her go through it in her own way. Respect her belief system.” Realize, she says, that the stages of grief — shock, depression, rage, denial, and resolution and acceptance — may not happen in any specific order, or on any timetable. “Sometimes people can be in all the stages in the same day.” And remember that critical times of grief may occur much later.

“After several months,” says Kimberly Foley, Bereavement Specialist at the Kansas City Hospice where grief counseling is offered, “the numbness of grief wears off.” It’s often six months after the loss of a spouse, for example, when things are the worst. The rituals of the funeral and burial are over, and support from family and friends has often waned.

Both Lack and Jimmie C. Holland, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, stress taking your cues from the grieving person, being available, and being a good listener. Continue to be supportive, they say, especially around the holidays, anniversaries, and for special days.

When bad things happen we have the best opportunity to demonstrate the very best of our humanity — to offer solace at life’s most difficult time.

When Someone You Know Is Suffering

Kimberly Foley, bereavement specialist at Kansas City Hospice, says, “The grieving process is very individual, so don’t have expectations.” She and other experts offer some simple Don’ts and Do’s.


Act like nothing has happened, or avoid the bereaved person.
Minimize grief, or trivialize it with statements like, “At least he didn’t have to suffer;” “He’s in a better place now;” or “At least you have your whole life ahead of you.”
Offer cliche’s like, “Time heals all wounds,” or “It’s God’s will.”
Give advice like, “You should take two months off.”

Reach out and show you care and are concerned, acknowledging the loss, by saying something like, “I know you’ve lost your mother. I’m so sorry. How are you doing?” Then take your cues from the bereaved.
Be available: be there, be a good listener.
Make a concrete offer of help, something like “May I bring over a casserole tomorrow about four-thirty?”
Attend the funeral to show your support.
Write a personal note.
In the workplace, it may be helpful to:

Tell the staff immediately, giving details as appropriate, to prevent curiosity, speculation, and rumors.
Allow employees the opportunity to react to or comment on the loss, and organize support for the bereaved.
Keep communications open with the bereaved, and plan for potential absences, or a reduced ability to work. Coordinate to cover her workload. (Comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and employment laws.)
Because the bereaved will undoubtedly have reduced energy, it may be helpful to designate one or two people to communicate with her.
Provide the opportunity for staff to participate in the funeral.
Send personal notes.

Create a workplace memorial, if appropriate — a bulletin board, a special scholarship fund.

Copyright 1998. These articles are not to be reproduced or distributed in any form, manner, or medium without the express, written permission of the author.

What’s Wrong with these Apologies?

(A version of this article appeared in Family Circle November 1, 1998.)

  1. Sorry.
  2. I’m sorry you’re upset.
  3. You know I didn’t mean it. You’re trying to make me feel guilty.
  4. I regard you as a friend. I would never intentionally hurt you.
  5. I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t…

These aren’t genuine apologies, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, M.D., Chancellor/Dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, a psychiatrist who has spent nearly a decade studying shame, humiliation, and the healing role of the apology in restoring personal relationships. He calls them “pseudoapologies” because none of these statements will heal the offended person’s hurt feelings, or mend a fractured relationship. None of these will restore tranquillity, or set the relationship right after the offender has hurt a loved one.

Why? These statements are designed to shield the offender, allowing her to avoid taking responsibility for her actions by owning the offense and making a genuine apology. Dr. Lazare adds, “They’re patronizing and offensive.”

Take another look:

  1. “Sorry” is a perfunctory word offered by the offender to close the subject; or as a demand to the offended: now forget it, and let’s move on. The offender doesn’t state what she is sorry for, why she did what she did, or if she intends to do it again. The word “sorry” itself doesn’t necessarily mean “I apologize.” It may mean, “I’m sorry that happened;” or it may even mean, “I’m sorry I got caught.”
  2. The offender accepts no responsibility. Instead, she places the responsibility squarely back on the offended person by defining the problem in terms of the offended person’s emotions, not in terms of her own actions.
  3. The offender turns the tables here, instead of accepting responsibility and apologizing, she tries to make the offended person feel responsible for her guilt.
  4. If, as the offender states, she would never intentionally hurt the offended, then the offended person is left to conclude it is her fault she feels injured: either the offended person is too thin-skinned, or she has misunderstood.
  5. The offender creates an excuse to escape taking responsibility.

Two Words That Make a Difference

(A version of this article appeared in Family Circle, November 1998.)

What happens when what you say or do injures someone you care about? Consider the following three examples:

“I’ll be home at five o’clock, sharp,” Dennis said as he headed for work. He and wife, Jodie, had promised to pick up the team equipment for Teddy’s Little League game, then pick up two of Teddy’s teammates.

By 5:20 p.m. Dennis hadn’t arrived home, hadn’t called, and couldn’t be reached on his cellular telephone. At 5:30 p.m. Jodie frantically called a parent already at the ballpark, and asked him to go back and get the equipment while she and Teddy rushed to pick up the other kids. The equipment, Jodie, and the three children were late. Teddy’s team was charged with a delay of game and had to forfeit. Several parents accused Jodie of being “irresponsible,” and Teddy cried all the way home.

Dennis breezed into the house at 8:30 p.m. “I got tied up in a meeting and couldn’t break away,” is all he said.

As sisters growing up, Karen and Andrea each promised to make the other her maid of honor. So when their mother called Karen and told her Andrea had asked Rachel, a college friend, to be her maid of honor, Karen felt hurt and angry.

When Andrea finally called, Karen could hardly speak. “I’m crushed,” she cried.

“I’m sorry if you’re disappointed,” was Andrea’s response. Karen didn’t attend her sister’s wedding, send a gift, or offer the couple best wishes. In fact, the sisters haven’t spoken since.

Kristin thought Sally was a good friend until, at a meeting of a committee the two served on, Sally took credit for a brochure Kristin had single-handedly completed for their club’s fund-raiser. To add insult to injury, Sally completely ignored Kristin all evening.

After several days, Kristin called Sally. “I was hurt by your conduct at the committee meeting…,” she began. Sally interrupted, her response incredulous: “I regard you as a good friend,” she quipped, “I would certainly never do anything to hurt you.”

Dennis, Karen, and Sally say there’s no need to say they’re sorry.

Wrong! says Ralph Earle, Ph.D., psychologist and family therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona, who counsels families in crisis who are going through complex apology processes in order to heal major injuries. “There’s nothing that damages a relationship more — sometimes even severing it altogether — than the lack of a genuine apology when you have offended someone you love.”

Why apologize? Living in a civilized society means abiding by a moral rule: we agree not to harm (take advantage of) each other. So, in our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and even strangers, there is the need to apologize to those we injure.

Because, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, Chancellor/Dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, “An apology has the power to generate forgiveness.” Conversely, the absence of an apology after an offense, or pro-offering what Dr. Lazare calls a pseudoapology, attempt to ignore or excuse the offender’s bad behavior.

Such egocentricity and insensitivity towards others, experts agree, is all-too-common in our society, and it’s contributing to creating a nation of moral weaklings; and a meaner America.

When do we need to apologize? While an accident like bumping into a stranger on the sidewalk requires only a simple “Excuse me,” or “Sorry,” a personal offense that attacks and lowers a person’s self-image creates a real social wound. Not apologizing for such an offense is symptomatic of our society’s obsession, experts say, with “me first,” success and winning at all cost.

In very public displays, we’ve seen the weak and tangled motives of self-interest and saving-face play-out in national and international pseudoapologies aimed at gaining sympathy or a moral advantage for the offender.

What some call the “Jimmy Swaggert syndrome” (you may remember the evangelist who, after being caught in a motel room with a prostitute, made an extremely emotional televised display of contrition) may be a bid, Dr. Earle says, for a cheap personal catharsis: “cheap grace.” Offenders often make pseudoapologies, he says, in attempts to escape their due punishment.

Bob Packwood would certainly qualify here for his very public pseudoapology in response to countless charges of ethical and legal misconduct. Mr. Packwood stated that if he was guilty (of things he, himself, had written in his diary), he was certainly sorry: “I’m apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did.” But, of course, he didn’t take responsibility.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Real apologizing isn’t for sissies. Our beliefs about apologizing are wrong, the experts say. “We have somehow in our society,” says Dr. Lazare, “come to believe apologizing is a sign of personal weakness. It isn’t. Apologizing is a sign of real character and personal strength.” In fact, Dr. Lazare and Dr. Earle agree that offering a genuine apology is one of the most difficult things we will ever do. It takes an act of moral courage and security in who you are to admit weakness, failure and wrong doing. But, adds Dr. Lazare, “The stronger you are, the more you can eat humble pie.”

Often, in our society, the offender believes that if she accepts responsibility for offending she’ll be somehow weakened, or will suffer a loss of respect. She may fear experiencing shame, or being made to jump through hoops to right the wrong. But the truth is, a genuine apology is a solution. It can eliminate the problem; restore the relationship. Apologizing can heal both the offended and the offender. It clears the offender’s conscience, eliminates the build-up of troublesome emotional baggage, and makes the offender feel much, much better about herself.

What makes an apology work?

We can certainly offer words of apology without feeling real remorse, and when we have only slightly and unintentionally injured someone in a way that isn’t personal, this may be adequate. But, for a serious personal offense, real remorse or regret, guilt, and shame are necessary. A real apology, Dr. Lazare notes, transfers the shame of the offense, which (in the act of offending) you placed on the other person, back onto yourself. “This is an exchange of power between you and the other person. The offended person suffered a loss of power in the offense. …Apologizing gives that person, whose self-concept was lowered by the injury, the power to forgive.” And it’s this exchange, Dr. Lazare says, that allows the healing process to begin. Without this demonstrated remorse, he adds, the offended person will doubt your sincerity.

What are the essential ingredients of an effective apology?

For an apology for a serious personal injury like those leveled by Dennis, Andrea, and Sally, to work — for it to open the door to heal the effects of the offense and restore the relationship — the offender needs to:

Properly time and measure her apology.
For a minor offense like failing to introduce someone, or interrupting someone who’s speaking, apologizing immediately prevents a small offense from becoming a large one.
But when a serious personal offense has been made, like an extramarital affair, it may take time for both the offended and the offender to integrate the impact of the offense before an apology can be made or received.
It’s important to note, too, that the apology must match or measure up to the offense and it’s consequences. Don’t expect, Dr. Earle says, that after years of neglect, for example, a simple “I’m sorry” will set things right.

Acknowledge and accept responsibility for the offense. This is really three steps, Dr. Lazare states:

  1. acknowledge you have violated a moral code,
  2. accept responsibility, and
  3. understand and acknowledge the impact of the

“Acknowledge that an offense was committed, and that you did it,” says Dr. Lazare. “A person cannot meaningfully communicate sorrow unless (she) knows and acknowledges what (she) is sorry for.” In owning up to what you did, show that you understand that it violated the moral code between you and the person you offended: standards such as honesty, fairness, faithfulness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, or loyalty. This step, says Dr. Earle, requires complete candor.

“It’s important to name the offense,” stresses Dr. Lazare. “And be very specific,” Dr. Earle instructs. “Don’t talk in generalities, or gloss over it.”

Dennis might begin with, “Jodie, I promised you I’d be home at five o’clock sharp, and I didn’t show…” Andrea might say to Karen, “I know that we promised we’d be each other’s maid of honor at our weddings, and I broke my promise…” Sally can be candid by telling Kristin, “I need to apologize. I took credit for the wonderful job you did…”

Connect the injury to the person. State how you believe the offense injured the person’s self-image: the story we believe about ourselves. This validates the person’s feelings of being ignored, belittled, betrayed, or humiliated. And it demonstrates that you understand the nature of your wrongdoing, and the impact it had on the person you wronged.

“It’s important that you understand how what you did affected the offended person,” says Dr. Lilli Friedland, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles. The offense, she says, can only be measured by its real impact on someone else. “This helps us take responsibility for the consequences of our behavior.” Dennis, Andrea, and Sally might then continue, “I know this must have hurt you very much.” Then, it’s good to listen. The offended person will often, if given the opportunity, tell you how she felt injured.

Explain. State why you committed the offense, or give the extenuating circumstances. “And do so without taking the low road of offering a pseudoapology,” Dr. Lazare says.

But don’t, experts warn, manufacture an excuse. For example, if you were late to meet with a friend because you were held-up for twenty minutes in traffic, you should relate that fact. But making up a traffic story to cover-up for the fact that you thoughtlessly made three extra phone calls instead of leaving your office on time will smell like the manufactured excuse it is.

By giving a factual explanation, Dr. Lazare notes, you can help to protect the offended person’s self-concept. It tells your friend that you realize her time is important and you value it; there was an unavoidable reason you were late. It can also help to protect your (the offender’s) self-concept: you are the kind of person who intends and tries to keep your commitments; there was an unavoidable reason you were late. In Dennis’ case, he should tell Jodie, “I got into an unplanned meeting with a client at the golf course, and I didn’t realize I had left my phone in the car. The time slipped away, and by the time I looked at my watch and then called you, you were gone.”

Communicate your regret. This, experts agree, must come from the heart. It should contain a statement of your emotions of anxiety, sadness, guilt, and shame, Dr. Lazare says. Anxiety and sadness, he explains, convey anticipation of the loss of the relationship; guilt expresses distress over causing damage to the offended person; and shame expresses your distress in failing to live up to your own standards.

State your decision to change your future behavior: if this were to happen again, you would act differently. The origin of the word repent means to change directions. In most religious teachings, it also embraces repudiating or denouncing the act. Dennis might say to Jodie, “I feel horrible about leaving you in the lurch. I acted irresponsibly. I let the meeting totally absorb me, and I didn’t watch the time…” He could add, “I’m going to try very hard not to do this again. In the future I resolve to keep my promises to you firmly in mind. …And my telephone with me…”

Make reparations. The offense creates a debt which needs to be repaid. “Reparations are often symbolic,” says Dr. Lazare. “The apology is (often) part or all of the repayment…” But when you’ve broken something borrowed from a neighbor, for example, reparation also means that in addition to apologizing, you have the item properly fixed, or replaced.

Dr. Earle works with families in crises, where offenses often include many years of abuse, infidelity, or chronic alcoholism. “There needs to be a very strict plan for change as part of the apology process in these cases,” he says. “One by the offender, and one by the offended.” Both parties, he says, must enumerate what they need the offender to do, and “there needs to be precise behavior set down and then achieved before full forgiveness can take place.” Your offer for future conduct is a kind of social contract which says that you want a harmonious relationship with the other person.

After the apology, closure may best be accomplished and rapport reestablished by making conversation on an unrelated detail or a neutral subject. This often eliminates any remaining awkwardness. But don’t rush it, or it could take away from the effectiveness of your apology.

Let’s rewrite the endings of the examples. After Dennis and Jodie have had a few hours to assimilate what his offense meant, Dennis begins by accepting responsibility and naming the offense: “Jodie, I promised you I’d be home at five sharp so we could all go to Teddy’s Little League game together, and I didn’t show. I completely let everyone down.”

He explains: “I got into an unplanned meeting with a client at the golf course, and I didn’t realize I had left my phone in the car. I got totally absorbed in the meeting, and the time just slipped away. By the time I looked at my watch it was five thirty. I called, but you were gone.”

This opens the way for Jodie to tell Dennis how she was humiliated, but most of all, she tells him she was angry because the offense hurt Teddy and the team.

After Dennis listens carefully, he is ready to begin the regret step of his apology. “I feel especially horrible about leaving you in the lurch, simply because I acted irresponsibly and didn’t watch the time…” Then Dennis finishes with his promise for future conduct.

But Dennis’ also owes Teddy and the team an apology. He can’t, of course, make up for the team’s forfeit, but Dennis can do a type of reparation by treating the team to a special end-of-season party which they would have gotten if they had won the championship. For Jodie, it was a dozen white roses — her favorite — and a sweet card of love, reaffirming his commitment.

Andrea, after taking responsibility for breaking her childhood promise to her sister, and naming it, explains that because she and Karen had had a rift, she decided not to ask Karen to be her maid of honor. Andrea apologizes for being so “petty and vindictive,” then communicates her regret: “I’ve had a chance to think about it, and I feel horrible. I broke a sacred promise. Karen, I love you very much. I’ve hurt you very deeply, and I’m ashamed of myself. I’m going to try very hard not to hurt you ever again.”

Andrea’s apology is most of the needed reparation, but she also asks her sister to be the godmother of the child the couple is planning to have soon.

Sally might say to Kristin, “I must apologize for not correcting the statement Vickie made during the committee meeting, giving me credit for completing the seminar brochure. It was wrong of me to take credit. After thinking about it, I realize I envied your very fine work.

“I sincerely apologize. I’ve called the other committee members and told them you are the person who did such a wonderful job, and I’m putting a special thank you in our newsletter.” Sally listens while Kristin tells her how Sally’s behavior hurt her.

“I know it’s going to take a long time to make up for such awful behavior, but I’m going to try very hard to prove to you I’ll never do anything like that again,” Sally promises. She asks Kristin to join her for a luncheon and fashion show she knows Kristin is dying to attend.

For Jodie, Karen, and Kristin these apologies have begun a healing. Dennis, Andrea, and Sally know they still have some work to do, but they feel so much better having cleared their consciences and restored the relationships.

The process of apologizing for a personal offense, Dr. Lazare reminds us, is a dynamic transaction between two people, not a pat recipe. It may take negotiation. But it must start with a genuine desire on the part of the offender to right a wrong. And the wounded person must place a higher value on the relationship than on nurturing a wound.

When someone won’t apologize? To heal and restore a relationship if you have been offended, experts advise, you may initiate the process by asking for an apology.

If the offense is a serious personal one, and the offender doesn’t apologize, the offended person may proceed by expressing her feelings about the wound. But this is often difficult, Dr. Lazare says, because she has already been wounded, and to openly discuss her pain makes her even more vulnerable. Start, he advises, with something like, “I found your behavior/statement offensive…” or “I was troubled by…” If no apology is forthcoming, the wounded person may then actually decide to discontinue the relationship. The most common reasons people don’t apologize, Dr. Lazare says, is because of pride (fear of shame), egocentricity, or fear of the offended person’s response.

When your apology isn’t accepted? The most common reasons why the offended person resists forgiving the offender is the sense of power in seeing herself in control — virtuous, while the offender is disgracefully powerless. Or, sometimes the offended person no longer wishes to continue the relationship, and feels that forgiving the offender will perpetuate it.

But don’t, experts advise, give up easily. If you value the relationship, exert every effort to negotiate and work through the apology process to its healing end.

We all know that failed apologies — those not given, those botched or those not accepted — can produce ruptured relationships, life-long grudges, and embittered efforts at vengeance. Remember, an apology demonstrates strength of character. It takes courage. It says you are committed to a high moral code and to your relationship with the offended person. It offers the opportunity for transforming healing to take place for both the offended and the offender. Apologizing says that although you make mistakes and have weaknesses, you are a strong and good person.

Edlyn McLain Gets Moving

(A version of this article appeared
in Woman’s DayJune 2, 1998.)

Oprah lost lots of weight and got fit, but could Edlyn McLain? On April 28, 1995, as Edlyn sat waiting for the cable guy, she flipped through the TV channels, and happened onto “Get Moving with Oprah.” The mega star’s advice: start walking, reduce your fat intake to thirty percent, eat five fruits and vegetables a day, and keep a journal. Edlyn, 33, a San Francisco office manager, says, “It was stuff I knew, of course.” Record before weight. Use my trainer, my chef, Oprah offered. Get my recipes off the Internet. Write down everything you eat.

“Oprah’s inspiration was the catalyst. That moment was an epiphany. Something clicked. …I was tired of being judged by my weight,” Edlyn says. “I decided to try it for three months. I needed to get kick-started… To lose enough weight so I could tell — and other people could tell –that I’d lost weight.”

Recording her before weight was going to be tough “…because I was too big for all the scales. …I weighed four hundred and fifty pounds. Maybe even four hundred and sixty. I couldn’t even go to the movies, or fly on a plane, because I didn’t fit into the seats…” Edlyn knew it was time or life changes!

Old Habits Die Hard
As a child, Edlyn says, she was twenty or thirty pounds overweight. Her parents divorced when she was four, and she became a pass-around kid, living with mom, then dad and his new wife. Grandmother, aunts and uncles, a few foster families. But, she says, that doesn’t totally explain it. Nor does the fact that her grandmother and others would say, “If only you’d lose weight, your father would love you.” Maybe she needed to prove he loved her anyway.

As a sophomore, Edlyn tried out for the softball team and weighed in at one hundred and ninety pounds. “I didn’t think that was so unusual because I was five feet nine inches tall.”

At 16, she ran away from home, and when she became ill in Nevada and was admitted to an emergency room, “I weighed two hundred and sixty eight pounds.”

She became a yo-yo dieter. “I tried every single TV infomercial diet. Even the little chocolate-flavored aerosol spray that came on a cheesy gold chain that came down to my belly button. ‘Anytime you feel hungry’ the ad said, ‘all you have to do is spray a little into your mouth and the weight will disappear.’ ” It didn’t. She even invented diets, like taking handfuls of fiber pills to make herself feel full.

During her early 20s, Edlyn reduced her weight to between 200 and 220. But, at 23, her mother died the very week she’d lost her job, and was notified she had to move from her apartment. “…that’s when I really fell apart. Over the next six months I piled on 100 pounds. After that I soon got up to three hundred and fifty pounds. And my weight just kept going up.”

Edlyn ate convenience store meals. Dinner might be a half gallon of ice cream and a bag of tortilla chips with a jar of processed cheese. “I might make nachos in the microwave. Sometimes I’d add a bag of potato chips and a package of cookies.” She began serious bingeing and purging.

Making Changes

Oprah’s inspiration carried Edlyn through that first week. After two weeks, “I hadn’t really keyed into it. I thought, I’m missing something.”

One Sunday, “I sat down and started writing about why I ate. About my mother, who had had a weight problem. About my father …who left after she became overweight.” After five pages, Edlyn realized, “I was just using the weight to protect myself… My mother was devastated [when my father left]… she never really recovered. …She died of obesity, really. She had cancer, but it was really brought on by her weight. She was morbidly obese. Just like I was.”

The revelation, Edlyn says, “Freed me. I realized I didn’t have to hide behind my weight.”

Through a friend’s recommendation, Edlyn enrolled in the Doctor’s Weight Management Program. The program encouraged her journal use. Another program key: setting then accomplishing one small goal at a time. Understanding why you’re overweight is important, Dr. Joan Saxton, M.D., Program Director, told Edlyn. But also, in real life you have to live with food. Support sessions featured practical how-tos.

This approach put legs on Edlyn’s determination. By August she’d lost 35 pounds.

The Next Step

The diet part of Oprah’s plan, combined with the weight management program, was working. By the end of 1995, Edlyn had lost 80 pounds. But she hadn’t exercised. “Ever, since my teen years.” When the program consultant asked, “Edlyn, What about exercise?,” she knew it was the secret to “keeping the weight off and losing more. I just didn’t know how to start.”

Dr. Saxton’s advice: burn 2,000 calories a week in exercise. (See Chart II.) “At over 300 pounds, I only had to walk half a mile a day to burn that many calories.” Still, the prospect was daunting.

New Years day, 1996, Edlyn decided to start by walking to the store for pack of sugarless gum, a half mile. Donning black stirrup pants, a green-and-black plaid top, and a pair of Timberland hiking boots, she started out. Most stores weren’t open, but by the time she found one — she later learned — “I’d walked a mile. One way.”

To take a bus home, Edlyn struggled half way up a steep hill to a bus stop and waited. And waited. Finally, she started walking again. “When I got home, I collapsed on the bed almost in tears, and said, ‘Now all I have to do is get up tomorrow and do it again.'”

That evening, she heard a radio announcer say that ninety-eight percent of Americans break their New Year’s resolutions within the first couple months. “I said, ‘I’m going to be one of the two percent who succeed.” Edlyn set a goal to exercise every day of 1996.

Dr. Saxton, a counselor, and her support group, encouraged Edlyn to use her calories-and-exercise computer journal to start setting small exercise/weight-loss goals, which added up to the big goal of losing 200 pounds in 10 months.

She was exercise-ready. Pulling on the hot pink stretch shorts, a sports bra and a big t-shirt, she started early morning workouts walking on the treadmill at a 24-hour gym she’d joined. Later she added the Stairmaster, then the Lifecycle.

Her computerized journal became an accounting system: calories in (consumed), calories out (burned through exercise). She adjusted her exercise to “burn off” any extras she ate. “My endurance built-up quickly, and exercising gave me more energy.” Plus, “It opened new worlds for me. Like hiking, and biking.” Courage and confidence building, Edlyn hired someone to help her take running and biking to the street. “It was scary, but wonderful.”

Meeting the Big Goal

Drawing on the tenacity that got her through 11 years of night school to get her college degree, and the encouragement of her support group, Edlyn overcame the inevitable weight gain setbacks. Then two weeks before her 10-month goal deadline Edlyn’s weight loss stalled. Those last pounds will come off, Dr. Saxton said when she observed Edlyn’s discouragement. Stick with it.

On her 10-month anniversary, as her support group watched, Edlyn stepped on the scales: 200 lbs. eight ounces lost. “I made it!”

On the last day of 1996, Edlyn celebrated another victory. She’d exercised everyday. “I didn’t miss a day!”

Two years after watching Oprah, April 16, 1997, Edlyn weighed 190 pounds. She’d lost 270 lbs.!

Setting New Goals

“Another secret for me was changing my exercise, creating new challenges, keeping it interesting.” Pedaling the Lifecycle, Edlyn read a tiny ad for the Danskin-sponsored women’s triathlon in Palo Alto. (The six Danskin-sponsored, sprint-distance triathlons across the country include three end-to-end events: swim 1,000 meters; bike 12.1 miles; and then run 3.1 miles.) She asked herself, “why not?” even though “I didn’t know how to swim. Not a stroke.” And, “I hadn’t even owned a swim suit since I was ten.”

After she called and registered for the triathlon, Edlyn phoned about swimming lessons. Later that morning she stormed San Francisco’s sports, big women, and department stores in search of a swim suit; finally selecting an aqua and blue, “huge” skirted model.

On her lunch hour on April 16 — exactly nine weeks and four days before the June 22 triathlon — Edlyn, accompanied by a friend, went to her first swimming class. Getting out of the pool, her friend said, “You’re not going to do this. You’ll drown.”

But Edlyn had set her goal: “Ten lessons, two-a-week, and practice swimming everyday.”

Putting her suit on for that first practice swim at the gym left Edlyn sitting and clutching the bench in the women’s locker room. She’d arrived at 2:00 a.m., “hoping no one would be there. But, of course, in San Francisco there were a lot of people there. I had to walk from the locker room about fifty yards past the men’s weight-lifting areas on both sides to reach the pool. I said to myself, ‘The hardest thing you’re ever going to do is walk out of this locker room and down that hallway to the pool. Once you do that, you can do anything.'”

She did it. Every day.

She set mini running and biking goals. “I told myself I’d already done one mile on the Lifecycle, so I could just keep increasing the distance… Then I got on the treadmill and ran a mile. I said, ‘O.K., I just have to add two more miles.'”

Testing Her Skills

Edlyn started looking for competitive events to see how she’d measure up. She signed up for a biathlon (running and biking), knowing “I’d be the heaviest woman there. And I was.” But she competed in several, even finishing one race long after everyone else had gone home. “The barricades had even been taken down, and it was getting dark when I finished. But I said ‘You started, and you’re going to finish.'”

Daily Edlyn was swimming a mile in the pool, running two miles and biking 20 miles. She knew open water swimming would be tougher, but it wasn’t until Edlyn showed up for the annual San Francisco Bay “Sharkfest,” and came face-to-face with a hundred reed-thin, competitive men and women swimmers, that she found out just how tough.

Standing in San Francisco Bay, “My heart was racing as the countdown began. …I started, but about fifty feet out I couldn’t see anything. I panicked. I was so scared. I had to turn around and go back. It was absolutely the lowest point of my life. I was ready to quit. Not do the triathlon.” She spent the rest of the day in bed.

But the next morning, “I said O.K., I need to find the murkiest, scariest, lake in the Bay Area, and go there and swim.” Saturday Edlyn and a friend went to the new-found lake. Very gradually she worked her way in. “I practiced swimming, and flipping on my back. That was my safety net.”

Those last two weekends before the triathlon, Edlyn ran and biked early in the morning, then about 10:00 a.m. headed for the lake. The day before the triathlon, “I took off work early and drove to the lake. I said, ‘This is it. Tomorrow is the day. I felt pretty confident.”

The Triathlon

That night all Edlyn’s doubts resurfaced. “I’d trained so hard for two months, but I still knew I’d be the last swimmer. I also knew I would be the heaviest woman there…” [She weighed 190 pounds.]

She reviewed her goals: “I had two. One, I didn’t want to drown; and, two, I wanted to finish.” Sally Edwards, triathlete and spokesperson for Danskin, identified all Edlyn’s fears: “To the whole group she said, ‘You’re probably thinking, gosh, I should have lost those extra pounds; I don’t think I can swim that far;’ and ‘I’ll be the very last person out there.’ But Sally also said she’d be out on the course along with everyone else, doing the ‘sweep.’ That gave me confidence.”

Before daylight Edlyn made her way to the lake. When the swim signal sounded and she entered the water, Edlyn says, “I couldn’t swim. I froze. I couldn’t breathe. But I rolled over on my back and made myself calm down. Then I started again.”

Edlyn didn’t drown. She wasn’t even the last woman to finish. Her personal record postcard from Danskin officially lists Edlyn McLain as finishing number 656 out of the 1,133 Palo Alto triathletes to cross the finish line!

But Edlyn’s real triumph is knowing exactly how far she’s really come.

Calories per Pound
Each pound of body weight, confirms Dr. Joan Saxton, M.D., of The Weight Management Program of San Francisco, requires 10 calories a day to maintain itself. For example:


Present Weight 200 lbs. Goal Weight 140 lbs.
X 10 X 10
2,000 calories/day 1,400 calories/day
Take present weight calories and 2,000 maintenance calories
subtract goal weight calories 1,400 goal weight calories

X = 600

X, or 600 calories a day, represents the lifestyle change required to get to and maintain goal weight, Dr. Saxton says. By reducing calorie intake by 300 calories, and burning 300 calories each day (600 total), ideal weight can be reached and maintained.

Sandra E. Lamb is a Denver triathlete, and a writer of literary fiction, nonfiction, and humor.

Copyright 1998. These articles are not to be reproduced or distributed in any form, manner, or medium without the express, written permission of the author.