I have twin objectives – to companion those in grief, and to help educate those who care about someone in grief. That education can get tricky: very often when grievers share their disappointment, and their frustration, at how other people try to help, there’s a backlash from the community: hey! We’re only trying to help!
Being with someone in pain is hard. But we can’t talk about what helps without also saying what does not. Sometimes I talk about this in pretty concrete terms, and other times, like today, I want to show you what it’s like for someone in pain to hear platitudes – those things we say when we don’t know what to say. And maybe, just maybe, this story will help you find a different way to stand in the discomfort of how hard it is to help.
This is a post written in 2010, when I was still very new in my grief.
I just came back from meeting a retired minister who has a beautiful farm. She lives near my folks, and has heard what happened. She invited me over to meet her goats. I will admit I had some – expectations. I expected to meet the animals. I expected to be invited to tour the place, to check out the grounds. I expected to maybe be invited in for tea. I expected that, if I brought it up, she would have something wise or comforting to say, something about life and love. She did not.
I met the goats. The minister and I talked for a few minutes. After awhile, I brought up the subject of loss. She did not mention her faith at all, and the only thing she had to say about love is that I will find someone else, that Matt would expect me to; she has heard my mother talk about him, and she knows what he would want. And then she reminded me that the cycle of life goes on.
Really? Years as a minister, and this is the best you can do? Tell me I will love someone else, eventually, as though that is my main concern right now? The best you can do is tell me what someone you have never met would want for me, as though I myself wouldn’t know?
I realize I expected her, as a minister, to “know better.” I expected her to be able to stand there with me, even as a nearly complete stranger, and – I don’t know – ask. Ask about god, ask about faith. Ask about love. Wonder with me about how this will unfold. Not give me useless, pandering platitudes about what great things await me “in the future,” and how life will always go on.
Why is it that so many people feel that the best way to comfort me now is to tell me I will not always feel this way, that I will move on, that Matt would want me to, that I will have someone else, that I should remember the “cycle of life” and realize all is as it should be. Clueless people. Ignorant, innocent people. The person I planned on spending my life with just died. And the best thing you can come up with is that he is replaceable, and to look at how the daffodils come up.
This is the recurring theme: Quick! She’s in pain! Let’s talk her out of it. Let’s tell her things will be better someday. Let’s remind her to be grateful for what she had. Let’s tell her how smart and funny and kind she is. And let’s be sure, because we know it is weighing her down, to reassure her that someone other than the man she loves will eventually be beside her, snoring softly, waking up to kiss her good morning, rolling back over to have five more minutes while she gets up to walk the dog so he can sleep. Great. Bring it on. Thanks so much for your kind words. You’ve really relieved my suffering, with all this trying to talk me out of it.
I know. I know you do not know what to say, and you are fumbling, and trying to be helpful. You hope against hope, inside your own hearts and minds that I will actually “be happy” again, that I will “find someone else,” that I will “recover,” because then there is hope for you. Then you have evidence that you would survive this if it ever happened to you. Oh look – love survives. It’s okay. Everything will be okay.
Please. Please stop it. I know pain is hard to witness and hard to tolerate. Please stop telling me what you think I should hear. Please stop telling me about later, stop telling me about my glorious future, that Matt expects and wants me to have.
Please stop pointing out how life goes on. Stop. I am here. Now. Do not tell me about “later.” That completely ignores my “now.” What happens or does not happen “later” is irrelevant.
Stop assuming you know what my deepest fears are; stop trying to calm those assumed fears for me. Stop telling me, as though you have the answers, as though there are any answers. Please. Stop telling me. Ask first. And I don’t mean “ask me what I need.” I mean – ask. Ask what this is like for me, ask before you make an assumption about what is real for me. Ask before you jump right in with your solutions to things that are not problems for me.
Or, simply stand here, right here, in this present moment, not telling me how much better it will be later. You can’t make this better by trying to take the present away from me. If you must say something, you could wonder with me, about love, about life. Wonder is good.
I am so disappointed in the goat-raising minister. Not her fault, really. She has not walked this road. She has no idea. But I am disappointed. I guess I expected her to wonder with me, without thinking she already knew the answers.
How do any of us live in this life that can change so quickly, without any warning at all? How do we move with all the love that is here, that is inside us, that is still present, even though the form has changed? How do we continue to be the person they love, the people we knew ourselves to be, in this new form, this new life? What kind of beautiful form can this take, this love we know?
There aren’t answers to these things. But asking the questions, rhetorical as they may be, is infinitely more helpful, more healing, than anything someone can tell me. Just being with now is infinitely more respectful, loving, and kind than anything you can tell me about what you think I should do, or how you think I should feel, or what you imagine my future to be. I live in my life, I am far more intimate with its contours than you, and even I don’t know what will unfold.
You are most helpful when you stand with me, without changing it, without fixing it, without making assumptions. It is okay to not have any answers.
Please. Ask, don’t tell. Be clueless with me. Wonder is a very good thing.