hot—and you gave me ice.”
A comment on a post published a few weeks ago now…
“I would love it if you would turn this “platitudes” idea around and write on how to properly deal with people, like yourself, who are experiencing the extreme emotions surrounding devastating loss and long term grief. What is the best way to walk up to the raging fury of despair and provide true comfort in the absence of empathy. I have tried my best to find something not-annoying to say. So far the best thing I can come up with is “My heart weeps for your pain.” But maybe the best thing to say is “Can I pick your kids up for a playdate this week?”
Is suffering a prerequisite to understanding suffering? Can I be of any service to my suffering friend unless I share her particular pain? If anyone has insight on this issue, its probably you.
BTW, I have always wondered — why jellybeans? Is it an Aussie thing?”
Thanks for asking, Cynthia.
First things first…. I wish I had a better answer that what I about to give you.
I’ve touched on this one briefly before– the best help I was given in the long, soul–flailing months after Tony died came unbidden. I had literally a hundred people tell me to call them if I needed anything, anything at all… the problem was, I didn’t even know what to ask for.
Imagine if, suddenly, the emotional guidelines of your life crumple, leaving you shell shocked to even cry, standing in the middle of the wreckage of who you used to be….
The big wide world only cares to a certain extent. While you fall apart on the inside, the basic premises and faculties of civilized society must continue.
There still needs to be food in the cupboards. The house still has to be cleaned, washing done, lawns mowed. And children still need to play– more than anything else, children still need to play.
Life must go on. But while you’re still surveying the rubble, listening with a stethoscope for pieces of your soul that may have survived; all those details become an impossibility. Details, details, details… annoying craws that catch in your temples like headaches and disrupt the very process of surviving.
In that situation– any situation where life as someone knows it has fallen apart and left a bare skeleton of stark reality behind– it’s always practical help, practical kindness, that is the most useful and that the recipient will remember long after a million offers of lip service have faded. I was extremely blessed– people like FaerieSaerie, the Pixie, the Bear and the Kitten were like angels who simply came in and did what they saw they could do, what was needed…. the simple things I just could not.
And if in doubt, always offer. Always. It’s better to offer something, to say something, than to say nothing at all. The silence once the sympathy wears off and people stop saying “I’m sorry” is nearly impossible to stand.
The words “I’m sorry” are sneaky and slippery and you find yourself saying “I’m so sorry, I’m just so sorry…” to someone deep in grief even when you know you shouldn’t, even when you know that’s the last thing they want to hear.
I know that’s how they are, those ‘I’m sorry’ words, because I find myself saying them sometimes, wishing I could catch the thread of them and spool them back into my mouth even as they’re leaving the tip of my tongue.
It’s just what you say when confronted– and it’s always confronting, real grief is never pleasant– with someone in mourning. Every movie you’ve ever watched tells you so, tells you that this is the social norm and the respectful thing to be done.
By the end of the long, hot Friday when I buried the man I loved every “I’m sorry” felt like another sun warmed stone of hardened lava cracking into my legs, my shins, my thighs, my arms tied high on a stake of a pain and unable to deflect the bone splintering blows.
I’ve gotten better at defending my flesh. I’ve heard and tested every possible response from “What for, you didn’t do anything” to “You’re not nearly as sorry as I am“. These days I respond to every well meant “I’m sorry” with a small sad smile and the slightest shrug of my shoulders and reply softly “Can’t be helped….”
Years ago when I was studying to be a social worker, I vaguely remember attending a class given by a midwife that looked at the possible roles of a social worker after a birth. She handed a photocopy of a photo around the class, a family of three in greyscale passed from hand to hand. A father and mother cradling a tiny, perfect baby… a baby born perfectly still. “Now, what would be the first thing you’d say as a social worker, walking in to this situation just hours after a still birth?”
‘I’m sorry’, I thought– it was all I could think, young and blissfully untouched by death. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry…’
“Well” spoke up another student, older than most of us, returning to study after her own children had grown, “you’d say ‘What a beautiful baby.’“
“Exactly” smiles our teacher for that day “They’ve heard everyone say how sorry they are, how awful it is… by now they probably need that acknowledgement that their baby is just as gorgeous as any other….”
That stuck with me for years afterward, a clear bell strike on a cloudless day. The simple power in it, in not dipping to the pain of death but basking, just for a moment, in the simple joy of life– in the beauty of a power, however still they may be… in the eyes of their parents, they are the most perfect baby ever created.
It’s not an easy thing to do, to stem the flow of apologies for something you had no part in. It’s something we’re trained in even as children– saying sorry makes it better, saying sorry makes it OK.
The adult truth is that is some situations nothing makes it OK. There is not a single thing you can as to make things better.
So don’t try.
Just be honest.
Nobody ever means it when they say “I’m sorry” to someone who’s grieving someone they loved. They might say “I’m so sorry for your loss” and you know what? That’s an OK thing to say. Because they are. It it still sounds stuffy and rehearsed and like a cop out in the face of the raw emotion the person in pain is dealing with.
So say something you mean. Say “I’m so sorry you’re hurting, it hurts to see it.” Say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.” Say “This isn’t fair” or “This is fucked” or “I hate that this is happening to you.”
Say “What a beautiful baby.” Or “He was an awesome person and I’ll miss him.” Or “He loved you very much.”
And if things are falling to pieces for someone and they keep going wrong, it’s OK to say “This is shit and I’ve got nothing for you. But please know that I know your pain.” Because really, when someone says something like “It will all work out of the best” or “Sometimes things happen for a reason”; most of the time what they mean is “Life sucks but I’m here for you.”
And failing all that, open you arms in offer of a hug and say “I don’t know what to say”… because sometimes that’s just the simple truth.
Because even the simple fact of saying “I don’t know what to say” is better than saying nothing at all. As I said, the silence of a thousand uncomfortable people…. it’s deafening.
*Part two of Cynthia’s question- the jellybean bit- coming soon.