‘My dear friend called and told me she has cancer,” a woman e-mailed me recently. “I’m not sure what I should do. My friend says she just wants me to listen. But I feel so helpless. I want to say something to make her feel better.”
We’ve all been in similar situations. Horrendous news strikes a loved one, colleague or neighbor and we’re not sure how best to respond or what to say.
Our natural inclination is to solve the problem. We might toss out suggestions, offer well-meaning advice or relate a similar experience that happened to someone we know. We may even attempt to gloss over the tragedy with a positive statement, such as “At least you have your other children.” Or “She died quickly. It’s a blessing she didn’t suffer.”
If we can’t make things better we tend to feel guilty. We systematically scroll through our mental list of options and, when we realize that each is woefully inadequate, direct that anger and frustration inward toward ourselves.
The truth is there is no solution. You can’t make things better, no matter how hard you try. A pregnant woman has miscarried her long-planned-for baby. A loving husband and father has been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor. A college coed is lying in a coma, suffering from severe head trauma.
A man has died in a fiery plane crash. These events are far beyond your control.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be helpful. Au contraire. Your support and concern are vital to the emotional well-being of those in turmoil and pain. The key rests in understanding how you can be most useful and in directing your energies toward those goals.
The first step in that process is being present. You literally share sufferers’ space as they sort through the rubble around them. Your willingness to be with people in their darkest moments lets them know they’re not alone and that you accept the unbearable pain they are currently feeling.
You don’t need to say anything profound. You barely need to say anything at all. A heartfelt, “I’m so sorry,” and “I’m here for you,” convey your deep level of commitment and concern.
Listen carefully to what sufferers tell you. Sometimes their emotions will seem garbled. There may be times when they want to scream or cry, other times when they choose to be silent. Wherever they are is acceptable. Your work is to listen to their thoughts.
Avoid the urge to give advice. Unless you’re a professional in a relevant field or have experienced a similar problem, you probably won’t be much help. Advice may also seem as if you’re being critical or that you’re unhappy with how things are being done.
Ask if there are ways that you can help. If you live nearby you might care for pets, babysit during doctors’ visits or buy groceries. You can even offer to mow the lawn or pay bills.
If you and the sufferers are separated by many zip codes, you can still be a loving support. Call them on the telephone and be a good listener. Send frequent cards and gifts. E-mail often. Pay an unexpected visit to express your concern in person.
Don’t forget about yourself in the midst of the trauma. Emotionally supporting others isn’t for sissies. It exacts a stiff toll from sufferers and caretakers alike.
Make sure you’re eating healthy meals, exercising and getting enough sleep. Specific situations may press you into the supportive role for long periods at a time. It’s important to keep yourself rested and refreshed so you can give to the others who need you.
Tips for cultivating empathy
What’s the best way to relate to a person in emotional pain? Consider these suggestions:
• Check in regularly. Ask sincerely, “How are you doing?” Then listen carefully to the reply. Your ongoing interest means so much to someone in pain.
• Tune in to nonverbal cues. Sufferers reveal a lot by the way they look, dress, sound and stand. You’ll increase your level of understanding by absorbing all they give off.
• Be willing to talk about the trauma. Sufferers want to discuss the details of their ordeals. It helps them make sense of their reality. Don’t worry that they are obsessing. They need to tell their story over and over.
• Offer to help with difficult tasks. Ask where you can be most useful, then be willing to lend a hand. For instance, a woman who has lost her husband may need assistance cleaning out his closet.
• Know when to be light. Yes, a person may be suffering emotional or physical hardship. But there’s still room for laughter and fun. Rent a comedy on Netflix. Recall light-hearted moments in your past. Shoot hoops together on the driveway. Even the slightest glimpses of joy remind sufferers that hope exists in the world and in their lives.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com