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5 Things to Say to a Scarred Person (and 1 Thing Not to Say)

A year ago, I sat eating lunch with my new friend, Betsy. We met when our kids performed in high school theater together. We both volunteered, selling cookies and water during intermissions in the sweaty clammy auditorium. Over time, Betsy's warm wit charmed me and I wanted to know her better.

When meeting someone new, I rarely bring up my extensive burn scars right away. The fire I endured as a four-year-old, my years of surgery, these traumas don’t belong in introductory conversations. But I am well-aware that new friends have questions. I know that everyone has questions. I just don’t feel like going there unless I am truly drawn to a person.

But Betsy had charmed me. So, I brought up the fire, my own way of opening the door to whatever questions she might have. Betsy smiled at me, brown eyes warm and bright, and exclaimed, “But I don’t even see your scars!”

I have heard this statement countless times. (For more on this topic, see this relevant article) I never know how to respond. What does this even mean?

You are blind. You would have to be visually impaired not to see my scars. I am facially scarred, as well as on my neck, chest, both arms and both legs. In the winter, completely bundled up and wearing a COVID mask, you could, theoretically, not see my scars. Other than that, let’s be clear, you see them.

You used to see them, but now you don’t. I think this is what this statement means. So, let’s follow that rabbit hole. Why do you no longer see my scars? Is it because I have become so lovable that my sparkling personality overcomes my defects? I understand this is meant to be nice. On the other hand, how would you feel if I declared, “I don’t even see that you are short!” Or “I don’t even see that you are obese!” Would that feel good?

The statement focuses on my scars as defects, which, now that you like me, have disappeared in the light of affection. With love, my scars cannot be seen! But let’s unpack that from my perspective. I am scarred on two-third of my body. I have spent over 50 years in this body. I wouldn’t say that I like my scars, but I also wouldn’t say that I hate them. My scars are a part of me. They signify my odyssey through terror, abandonment, surgeries, hospitalizations, bullying and rejection. My scarred skin is tough and so am I. I would prefer not to have scars, and yet I would miss them if they were gone. My scars are extraordinary and mark me as an extraordinary person.

When a person says, “But I don’t even see your scars!” I have no idea how to respond. What am I supposed to say? “That’s nice?” Or “Thank you?” I don’t feel complimented. I feel unseen and diminished.

I believe that most people claim they don’t see my scars because they have no idea what else to say. And you know what, I get that. We are not educated on how to handle social difference, and most of us are terrified to say the wrong thing. We don’t want to offend. I understand.

Let me offer some suggestions. As a general principle, I don’t need to know how you reacted to my scars. That is your journey. (Just like you wouldn't wish to know how I reacted to your being chubby, short or balding). But I would love to feel close and safe with you. So, if I bring up my burns to you, what could you say that would feel good to me?

“I would like to learn about your injury, if you want to tell me”: This statement lets me know that you are interested in my journey, and that you want to know about my pain. It also gives me permission to decline the conversation if I’m not up to it. Telling you about my injury is necessary for us to get closer, but it will also be exhausting for both of us.

“I love you as you are”. This is how I wish to be loved, and isn’t this true for all of us? I don’t want to be loved with blinders on, eyes squeezed so tight that you can’t see what I have been through. I want to be loved for the person I am, which includes, although is not limited to, my trauma and struggles.

Or, just Say Nothing: One of the issues about scarring is that everyone can see it (despite what you declare to the contrary) so everyone feels some need to address it. I get this, but it is a drag. We all have burdens and hardships that we carry – most are not visible. The difference is that you can instantly see my burden, but I can't see yours.

Imagine, though, that everyone could immediately see that you drink too much. Imagine that every new person felt compelled to offer commentary. Strangers at a party. . . People in the grocery story. . . Every single person with whom you wanted to be friends. They say,

“I see that you drink too much. How did that happen?”

“It must be so hard that you drink too much.”

“How long ago did you start drinking too much? What has it been like? Have you had treatment? How many treatments did you have? Will you have more? Are they painful?”

Or. . . “I don’t even see that you drink too much!” Awkward, right?

My point is that sometimes less is more. You can convey that you care about your new friend without offering commentary on how they look or what they have been through. Just as you might not welcome my commentary on anything about your body, I don’t generally welcome your commentary on my scars.

What I long for most of all is love and friendship. In this way, I am just like you. So what can you say?

“Are you OK?”

“Do you need anything?”

“ I am here for you.”

Or, best of all, “I love you. I’m glad to be your friend.” That is what you can say.

The author and her best friend, Susan Algieri Reiss

The author's memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.


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