We’ve all been there. That moment with the suffering friend, co-worker, family member or acquaintance. You’ve heard what they’re going through. Or maybe you have just lived long enough to see it on their face. They’re hurting.
The standard quips are things like, Is there anything I can do? or If you need something, feel free to call. How about, I know you’re strong enough to make it through this. Or, When life hands you lemons…
(When life hands you lemons, resist the urge to throw them at the human being uttering this idiom.)
But ask yourself this: when you have been in the thick of it, did you ask for help?
We often hear that those who don’t ask for help are simply too proud to do so. But is that true? Maybe the issue is private and airing it would break a confidence or worse, hurt another person involved. Furthermore, sometimes when we are hurting, we are just so overwhelmed we don’t know where to start. We don’t know if a magic bullet exists anymore to ease the burden. Or maybe we think we are managing just fine when in reality, our pile of stressors is like a game of Jenga. The tower grows higher and higher and we’re thinking, I’ve got this. I’m lined up okay. My base is steady. And then one little thing happens and it’s like that middle pin is pulled and down it comes.
For all the times I have ruminated about not saying the right thing at the right time, and hoped to be helpful and wasn’t, one moment stands out where by saying very little, it was actually of more benefit.
Standing at the door of an acquaintance who I knew had suffered a series of physical setbacks and family struggles, I offered my internal plea to the universe. Please give me the words. If you knew how often I think this line; bartering with teenagers, how much to interject when I feel some situation is amiss or choosing my words in a group discussion. But this time, when the door opened I was unprepared and I stammered, “I don’t know what to say except I am just so sorry for what you’re going through.”
I should mention that I am not a natural hugger. I think my family skipped this gene somehow and we have had to learn how to do it, remind ourselves to do it. But she grabbed me and held on tightly and wept. And said thank you, even though I hadn’t done anything except show up. I asked which day was the hardest in her week, the busiest. She told me Tuesdays and I offered my services every Tuesday; babysitting services from my daughter and meals from myself. Because I sensed if I asked what she needed, maybe she herself wouldn’t even be able to identify it.
There is no magic to this anecdote, really. Nor did I feel I possessed any unusual insight or wisdom. I didn’t know exactly how she felt because I hadn’t been through what she had. But the crux of the matter is that we don’t have to know exactly, because the human condition is such that we have all suffered. And sometimes it just takes someone to remind you that on top of everything else, you are not alone. Plain and simple.
-True empathy never begins with the words 'at least...'. This is not the time for comparisons.
-Ascribing meaning to suffering may be best attempted when the height of the pain has passed and objectivity regains centre stage.
-Whatever philosophy you subscribe to, the implication that anyone chooses suffering is insensitive.
-If you truly care about the person, understand that sometimes they will say or do uncharacteristic things that feel insulting or out of line. If they have been there for you thick and thin, let it go. Human beings make mistakes when they are hurting and nobody is at their best in a time of loss or change.
-Don’t avoid them for fear of offending or feeling awkward. You can always send a message, text or drop something off with a note.
-If the situation is shared with you, have the good sense to not repeat it to others.
Don't worry if you're not sure what to say, friends. True compassion speaks for itself.