Hi There, Celebrationists!
- I am grateful for the lovely, full, and energizing week off – and am excited to start rehearsing for Sondheim on Sondheim, tomorrow
- I am grateful to have some fantastic reading material on my hands at the moment. I’m working my way through Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood, William Seabrook’s Asylum, and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time kind of girl, but I’ve been cycling through all three of these with great interest and enthusiasm
- I am grateful for this wonderful recent gift – it’s an incredible collection, in every way
Over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “saying the right thing,” when someone we care about deeply is going through a challenging time.
Do you sometimes find yourself at a loss for what to say, when a person you love is suffering? And perhaps at times this fear of saying “the wrong thing” keeps you from engaging at all? Or engaging so unnaturally that you wonder if you’ve made matters worse for them, and then obsess over what might have been the perfect sentiment to have expressed?
When a friend, co-worker, or family member is struggling with:
- A physical or mental illness
- The loss of a job
- Total aimlessness/loss of purpose
- A break-up
- The death of a loved one
- Insert your own, here ___________________
Do you find yourself filtering through some of the following:
- “Should I try to share a similar-ish experience, in an effort to make them feel not-so-alone?” – No, I don’t want to make it about me, or for it to seem like I’m trying to take away from their pain and particular experience…but maybe it will HELP them…no. It won’t help them…
- “Should I attempt to put a positive spin on their situation?” – No, this could actually (without meaning to) be really insensitive, and the last thing I want to do is make light of their situation…but maybe a jolt of optimism would inspire them!…or send them deeper into a downward spiral…ugh
- “Should I regurgitate every bit of potentially relevant inspirational material I’ve gleaned from the last twelve self-help books I read?” – (This is actually some version of my go-to, but can feel manic in the moment, and has wildly varying results)…ughh
- “Should I allow myself to express emotion about their situation (as is my natural inclination) instead of holding back – showing them that their own emotions are valid, normal, and that I’m not scared to experience theirs?” – No, because then they will likely feel the need to comfort me and calm me down, which is the opposite of the desired goal…ughhh
- “Should I offer practical, un-emotional advice about how they might be able to help themselves cope in this situation?” – No, because chances are they’ve already been through a retinue of options, are getting “advice” from everyone they’ve ever met, and I don’t want to insult their intelligence…or ability to research, or listen to their doctor…ughhhh
- “I actually have some frame of reference for this terrible situation – should I tell them how much I understand, so they don’t feel alone?” – NO, because I’m not THEM, and I CAN’T understand fully, and it’s self-important to think that I could!…But there are these similarities, maybe it would help…NO, it WON’T help…Ughhhhh
- “Should I offer one of those nice little trite but true cliches I’ve read on the internet, or that somebody told me at one point?” – No, because they are trite for a reason. But…also they are true for a reason…but does that make them meaningless and seem like I don’t actually care/am just reciting a thing I read? But I actually BELIEVE that one thing I read… Ughhhhhh….
- The list goes on…
So what to do?
I was chatting about this with a friend of mine who has been in remission for two years after a tumultuous experience with breast cancer. One in two thousand women in their twenties are diagnosed with breast cancer, and she is one of those ladies (also, you should probably check out her blog – and by probably, I mean definitely). She offered some really interesting insight, as she dealt with many well-meaning humans who wanted to be present for her during a really awful time. And – she just had to tell a lot of people, so she’s had plenty of practice dealing with reactions of all kinds, to this news. She said the responses that meant the most to her were from people who were able to stay themselves, and not change the nature of their relationship by reacting strangely and unnaturally. The people who were pretty bluntly honest in their reactions, as opposed to those who were precious about it. She offered that a response of “I don’t know what to say” is sometimes the best one, because it is the most honest.
The internet is filled with lists of “what to say, and what not to say,” right? When a person loses a loved one, when a person is in recovery, when a person has cancer…and well-intended as such collections are, I think the bottom line is that not one of these lists will be “right” for all of the people in all of the situations, 100% of the time. We are all beautifully complex webs of emotional wiring – it’s impossible that one method of coping will work wonderfully during all circumstances. This might seem like an obvious thing to say – something we all know on an intellectual level, but when we’re there in the moment with a person…what really is the best way to show that we care?
What I’m realizing is that possibly I’ve been asking myself the wrong question.
I think instead of obsessing over what is “the right thing to say,” it might be more useful to ask ourselves these kinds of questions:
- Am I really listening to this person right now? Am I listening and observing in all the ways it is possible to? Clues in their body language, tone, their relationship to the words coming out of their mouths? Am I as fully plugged in as I’m able to be? Am I making it clear to them that I am listening, and have the appetite and eagerness to do so for as long as they have a desire for it?
- Does it feel appropriate in this moment to ask thoughtful questions?
- Why am I so uncomfortable? Is this making me question and ruminate on my own mortality, or planting other seeds of fear in me? What about all of this is making me feel fearful, in this moment? The sooner we can identify and get past our own discomfort, the sooner we can get back to being totally present in a way that is authentic and useful
- Am I validating this person’s experience? Usually a decent indicator of this is, am I listening more than I’m talking? Am I offering acceptance of everything happening in this moment, without conditions? Am I reflecting their experience back at them in a thoughtful way?
And more than anything, I think it’s important to show up. We don’t have to be perfect to be there for someone. We don’t have to be an ethereal goddess of centered wisdom to let someone know that we support them unconditionally and validate their feelings of anger and sadness. We don’t have to be totally whole, ourselves. Being there, just as we are, can be enough.
I’m also realizing that we are setting ourselves up for a hard time when we try to anticipate the needs of others in an obsessive way, because you know…I don’t know if we know what we need most of the time. Has somebody ever offered you a piece of advice, and you really take it to heart, appreciating and ruminating on it for awhile….and then a different person gives you the same advice in a different context and it feels hollow, or makes you want to fling something heavy across the room? We are changing every second. And especially in times of tragedy, we might crave a hug or sweet word in one moment, and find those things unbearable in another. So I think that showing up, preparing to be patient – with ourselves, with the situation, and with whatever comes up in our environment, is a great place to start. Remembering that our love can be shown just as well in our silence as it can in our speech. That whatever words come out of our mouths – if they are from our most authentic self, there is nothing more “right” to say, than that.
And when in doubt, “I don’t know what to say, but I love you” might just be more comforting and normalizing than you realize.
Love to you all this week, Celebrationists xoxo
Also. I am now the owner of a deck of delightful affirmation cards. These are the two I drew for you this week, Celebrationists – enjoy them!