What do we say when there is a tragedy, a death, something really bad happens to people we care about?
Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”
When I was younger I would try to draw on my capacity for empathy, but I had a fairly dry aquifer of emotional intelligence. Life, death, disease, and unexpected mishaps were frankly just part of the hand you were dealt. Our feline life expectancy dropped a year or two each chapter of our experience until we accept we have one life to live and it is very short.
As we mature and age we are exposed to more suffering, more tragedy, more death. It is a jolting reminder of our mortality and the mortality of the ones around us. We feel more compelled to express our sympathies and condolences. To offer support to the survivors. We struggle with doing the right thing at the right time. We write notes, emails, sign cards, and say things to comfort family and friends. Sometimes we rely on Hallmark for the words, say or write the same thing we always say, or we do nothing. At least for me, it is an awkward process.
What can I say? What should I say? What can I do? What should I do?
I have learned so much being the recipient of these communications. Nothing like learning about yourself by how you are treated.
The golden rule always applies. Say/do unto others as you would have them say/do unto you. What would comfort me?
A rude awakening for me is how selfish I have been and others can be in trying to comfort each other. It is not about me. It never really is. But we can lead with "Me too", or "I know how you feel".
The oddity of our clumsy and sometimes hurtful attempts to help is this: we have clear ideas from what has helped us in our suffering, but we do not adopt it when seeking to love others. We do not always speak to others in the way we would like to be spoken to. Edward T. Welch
I remember a comedy routine, where a distant friend goes up to the grieving mother of a murdered child at the vigil to pay his respects. He gets nervous, then tongued tied, and blurts out, "I apologize." Not the same as "I am sorry." :)
What I learned and others have taught me--Less is more. Stop before you start into your robotic motor mouth routine. Put your well-intentioned pie hole on silent. Silence is better than words. A hug says more than any profound phrases. Everyone deals with grief and suffering in their own ways. But there is a universal understanding that your very presence is more powerful than anything you say.
"I'm sorry." Is enough.
Again, stop and look both ways before you stick your foot in your "me too" mouth.
I really try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I hope people have done the same for me! A dear friend, expressed her condolences and tried to comfort me. Then she took the safety off of her verbal trigger and away she went. "Yeah, not a day goes by where I don't cry about my husband." I knew what she was trying to do, but it was our first conversation and the second thing she said.
"How are you doing, today?" The today part is sensitive to what is happening. "How are you?" is auto-pilot and invokes the silent "How do you think I am?!!"
Do not say: “If you need anything, please call me, anytime.” Another well intended thought but.........
– If ‘comforters’ knew anything about real hardship, they would know that sufferers usually don’t know what they want or need.
– If comforters knew anything about the sufferer, they would know what the sufferer wants or needs.
– If comforters really knew the sufferer, they would know that he or she would never make the call. Never. Tara Barthel
In his book, "The Reality Slap," Russ Harris presents two lists — the first, a few responses that genuinely make you feel supported and understood; and the second, a number of responses that, although meant to be helpful, aren't really all that compassionate. Let's start with the less compassionate responses (many of which I myself am guilty of, and if we're being honest, most of us have said at times):
- Telling you to "think positively"
- Giving advice: "What you should do is this, "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
- Discounting your feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
- Trumping your pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
- Telling you to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"
Here are some compassionate responses highlighted in Harris' book:
- Asking how you feel
- Giving you a hug, embrace, placing an arm around you or holding your hand
- Validating your pain: "This must be so hard for you" or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
- Sharing their own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
- Creating space for your pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
- Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?"
I took a thanatology class in college---Death and Dying. I learned about the 5 stages of dying that was asserted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Most of us have heard this. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. It made so much sense to me. It clearly applied to romantic break-ups :) But death? And the grieving?
Pauline Boss' research disputes the application of these 5 stages to grief. That Kubler-Ross never intended to have them applied to grieving. We all want steps and stages. We want a linear routine to replace the organic reality. Boss' basic thought is closure for grief is a myth. While time heals, you will never be finished with your grief--and closure is only good in real estate. You don't want to forget or get over it. I know there are nuances here but really important ones.
This myth of closure has helped me be more sensitive, more compassionate. Time heals but never erases. I know this to be true.
A colleague who did not know my Dad, said "Sorry to hear about your Dad. Tell me about him." I smiled, because I got to tell a Dad story and share my love and gratitude. For me, that was one of the nicest and most comforting things anyone said to me.
Part of building and maintaining a vibrant, authentic and altruistic network is our ability to connect to support one another. No time is more crucial than in times of loss and suffering.
Remind yourself what would comfort you. Stop, pause, and be present. Say less. Suppress your needs and surrender to the needs of the other. Good advice for all of us almost all of the time. Be kind: For we are all fighting great battles and carrying great burdens that are not known to one another. (my interpretation of Philo)
Thanks for reading. John