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People Say the "Darnedest Things!"

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Responding to Our Neighbors in Their Time(s) of Need: Some Gently Suggested Do’s and Don’t


We’ve all heard them. Or said them. The unfortunate phrases uttered out of an awkward silence to a hurting colleague, neighbor, student, playmate, friend: “She’s in a better place;” “God needed him;” “You’re young, you’ll meet someone;” “You’ll have more babies;” and yes, even, “Everything happens for a reason…”

Or nothing is said at all. Days, weeks, months go by, meetings are attended by the recently bereaved or otherwise stricken co-worker, and all is business as usual, except for the avoidance of eye contact or stolen, pitying glances.

A person suffering a serious illness or caring for someone who is can find him or herself caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to disclosing their situation. Do they let others in and risk becoming subject to detailed accounts of the treatment ordeals of remotely-known others; to being barraged with medical advice, must-take supplements, must-go-to doctors, must-try drug trials, treatments, exercise regimes...? Or, do they preserve the shred of normalcy still left to them by putting up protective walls, at the high price of becoming isolated and forfeiting needed support.

Of course, most of us want to offer genuine support to those who are in pain. What, then, makes it so hard? Why do our efforts so often miss the mark? Members of the Spousal Bereavement group I facilitate weekly at The Center for HOPE show a great deal of empathy and insight into the situation. As one young widower whom I’ll call Gordon, commented, “I can’t judge others for feeling awkward, not knowing what to say or do, because until my wife got sick, that’s how it was for me, as well. I didn’t know what to do with myself at funerals and wakes. So I don’t get too upset with others now when they don’t want to or can’t go there with me.

Unfortunately, such discomfort and avoidance is more or less the norm. Other cultures, more at home with life transitions, invite daily reflection upon one’s own mortality; special mentorship/saging roles are assigned to elders, and the end of life is prepared for and experienced at home, with the dying one surrounded by family, including children, and honored as an important passage to be shared. The time and place in which most of us live, though, leans more towards denial when it comes to the human condition. The ill, the aging and the dying are often pushed out of the public eye. Many of us put off planning for the inevitabilities of end of life. We keep the idea of becoming ill at arms’ length and the end of our lives in the category of the “far, far, off, unthought-of future.”

Thus, we tend to experience fear and self-protectiveness in the presence of stricken others. Consciously or not, we feel compelled to disassociate from their fragility and pain. Illness and death happen to others; not to us. It’s not that we plan to be this way. It’s just what we’ve learned unconsciously from the models around us, but as we become more aware, we choose to learn to tolerate our own discomfort and our fears, so we can better “show up” for ourselves and for each other.

We all go through hard times. Many experience illness or the illness of someone to whom they are close, most age, all die. Although life involves pain for us all, suffering can sometimes be stigmatized. In particular, mental health issues tend to be stigmatized, but troubles such as anxiety, depression, addiction or suicidality generally stem from the pain (and sometimes the trauma) of being human we all share.

Repeatedly, newcomers to the bereavement group find immediate comfort from the simple fact of being amongst others who can say with authenticity, “I know how you feel; I know what you are going through” – which is without a doubt one of the most healing aspects of being in the group. For those of us fortunate enough to not be able to say we know just how it feels, because we haven’t been through it – just yet – there are still ways to be comforting. When asked to share what words or gestures had been most helpful, members gratefully recalled being told:

“I know how much he loved you,” and “He always talked about you,” or “I’ve been thinking of you.” “Is there anything I can do?” And they appreciated the honest “I don’t know what to say.” One member laughed appreciatively, as she recalled another young realtor who’d suffered, too, taking her aside during an open house to say, “You’re going to need tissues and sunglasses for the car.

More important than anything one can say, is simply being present, showing up in small but significant ways, such as bringing a meal, doing the dishes, tidying up, helping with the kids, offering a ride, a hug, an ear, some quiet company, or when desired, some form of distraction.

Responding in a helpful way can be hindered at times by our sense of compulsion to do something, to fix things or take care of the other and our difficulty accepting our relative powerlessness in the face of suffering. A client of mine expressed huge relief in session one day when I let her know it was okay to simply feel weak and defeated and afraid. Her well-meaning friends had been insisting she keep her spirits “up,” and reminding her of how “strong” she was, both of which sentiments were well-meant and have their value. However, when fighting a prolonged battle for renewed health, trying to always fend off feared-to-be “destructive” emotions, such as anger, sadness, and even despair, can be exhausting. It can deplete an ailing person of energy and lead ironically to feelings of shame and isolation rather than empowerment. Sometimes what’s needed most, what truly heals, is a good, long cry, or just being held.


#sympathy #friendship #social norms

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