The Ritual of the Kleenex

September 25, 2018
Brenda Denzler
Brenda Denzler

Brenda Denzler is a writer and editor living in North Carolina. She received her doctorate from Duke University and worked as an editor at UNC-Chapel Hill before she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2009. Since then, she has devoted a great deal of her time and energy to understanding and writing about cancer, cancer treatment and the impact of pre-existing PTSD on the ability of doctors to give and patients to receive medical treatment.

"Hugs" come in all kinds of forms.

We cancer patients are frequently drawn into the “Ritual of the Kleenex.” It's a ritual of sympathy and caring, I think, that may be unique to modern Western culture, where certain individuals have taken on the role of being professional carers. It goes something like this:

For one reason or another, I begin talking about the depression and anxiety I've been feeling in the wake of what has just happened to me, what did happen so many years ago and what could happen again in the future. I get upset; I start to choke up, to tear up or, frankly, sob.

At this point, someone reaches for the box of Kleenex and hands it to me. They don't pull out a Kleenex and hand it to me. They hand me the entire box.

Like all rituals, it's a two-way affair. The expected response from me is that I will take a Kleenex out of the box that is proffered and, at the very least, hold it in my hand (if not use it to dry my tears or wipe my nose). So I do.

On a purely practical level, the Kleenex does little to help me. It doesn't last long against the onslaught of body fluids generated by my distress. Most of the time, I don't even try to use it that way. I just hold it, wadded, in my hand, as if it were a life preserver that has been thrown out to me, drowning in my anguish, by a would-be rescuer.

And in fact, I guess that's what it is. A tiny little security blanket against the demons I am facing.

I note that many of my friends never offer me Kleenex. They may reach out and pat my arm or, more often, hug me. They physically connect my grieving self with their own bodies, holding me, patting my back and trying to breathe consolation and new life back into me. But if I want to wipe my tears and blow my nose, I have to go in search of Kleenex on my own.

It's only the professional carers who so consistently offer the Kleenex — the people whose professional ethics usually prevent them from expressing their caring in any other way. They cannot hug. It just wouldn't be right. So, they offer a Kleenex, instead.