Terrible Things.

When I was in college, I volunteered for a grand total of one day with an organization that bused UCLA students to an east LA home for abused teenage mothers.  I was interested in the organization because I was a psychology major and loved children and thought it would help define what direction I wanted to take my counseling career (Yes.  Counseling.  The one field I have not worked in as an adult).  While on the bus with a bunch of other white, clueless college second-years, I daydreamed about all the good we would do – all the supplies we would sort and people we would meet and lives we would touch.

And then we actually got there.  Once off the bus and inside the house, it took me about fifteen seconds to realize that there was nothing in the entire damn world I could teach these girls that they did not already know, aside from, of course, that college kids from the suburbs can occasionally be misguided, self-involved assholes, who show up in their university sweatshirts to help “save the children.”  We were there for four hours, wandering halls and seemingly not expected to do much more of anything other than parade our incredible privilege around, and the experience made me so entirely sick that I never went to another campus meeting and stopped answering the club’s phone calls.

That story is important because it shows you that I am fully capable of knowing when I’m out of my depth and that when I know that I cannot possibly say (or do) anything meaningful, I avoid at all costs.  Perhaps it is the Puritan stock of my father’s family.  I would rather seem like a cold, unfeeling alien monster from another planet than overstep boundaries or shower someone in pain with trite, useless words.

This brings us to the intentionally vague portion of today’s post: someone I know had something terrible happen to them recently.  I know about it and have cried actual tears about it at home and yet I have not addressed it except in the broadest of terms with this person, despite the fact that I can’t even think about it without being overwhelmed with grief for them.  This terrible thing is something that is foreign to me and hugely personal to them, and to say anything about it makes me feel like a total fraud.  So, I’ve said very little.

I am a deeply emotional, sympathetic person, who, for some reason, can show more kindness to spiders I find in the shower than to people I know who are devastated.

Half of me hopes that not forcing people to engage in long conversations about their tragedies spares them having to cry in public, so that they can continue eating the dinner they’ve ordered or work they are doing or whatever blessed momentary distraction is taking their minds off their realities.  And then, later, the other half of me is horrified that I might have seemed too cool or removed or emotionless.

Can someone please tell me how normal humans handle loss with other normal humans?  Because I am a total failure.

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19 thoughts on “Terrible Things.

  1. Wonderful and insightful post. As someone who has suffered great loss and have had the experience that people just don’t know what to say… I encourage you to say exactly that. “I love you and I don’t know what to say, but I am grieving with you and I am here if you want to talk… About anything”

    It is important that you recognize your shortcomings, but don’t beat yourself up too much. Your love and empathy can go a long way…and maybe a afternoon of wine and girl time when she is up for it. Good luck. This person is lucky to have you as a friend!

  2. You’re not a failure at all. For your age and life experience, I find you to be very aware of the realities of life. I credit your prosecutor dad for that. When you’ve been lucky, like me, you can’t relate to people who’ve had terrible lives. You just can’t! Why say something stupid? You say this: “Hey, I’m your friend. I love you and want to help but I don’t know what you need. Please come to me when you’re ready.” They will!

    • I’ve also been incredibly lucky – the only losses I’ve experienced have been the deaths of my grandfather and my great-parents, who were all in their 80s and 90s when they died. And people KNOW that. So me trying to give any sage wisdom feels hollow.

      Your advice is perfect. In that it is exactly what I did and it makes me feel like a good person. 🙂

  3. I don’t know if his is helpful at all … but I react similarly to you when faced with another’s tragedy. In the past, I have found that writing a letter, card or email is a good way to show the person that yes, you care, even though you know that no words can comfort them, you are thining about them and you love them. Keep it short and sweet, and I think your friend wil appreciate it.

    • Thank you! I did end up sending a message, explaining/apologizing for not being as effusive as I wanted to be and offering to help with anything my friend needs. It did really help. That’s great advice!

  4. I absolutely know this feeling; there have been so many times where people have had horrible things happen to them and you don’t want to be the one who says something stupid. One girl did that to me after a dear uncle died suddenly, telling me to stop crying because “he was in a better place.” She also bailed on taking me to the airport about that same time, so I may have wanted to slap her by that point. But, I had others who didn’t try to say platitudes or explain why he died or what I should or shouldn’t do. Most of the time, saying nothing was just fine. A smile, a hug or a squeeze of a hand, or a whisper of “I’m here if you need anything or need to talk” was the best thing anyone could do. So when I don’t know what to say or do, that’s what I do.

    • That girl sounds miserable! See, that’s my fear – I don’t want to be that girl!

      I think your advice is great. That’s pretty much what I did, although I MAY have said something about everything happening for a reason, because in this case, it has proven to be true for my friend in the past. However, I’m glad to hear I’m not a (total) jerk.

      Thank you!

  5. I hate when people say “I know how you feel” when they have never experienced what you’re talking about. Being honest and present is all we can do. Comfort people how they want to be comforted: listen, divert, share a shoulder, etc. Your friend will know you’re genuine in your care.

  6. In my own experiences as a human, all it takes is for someone to listen to know that all emotions are valid. No matter what. For someone to take the time out of their own human experience to look you in the eye and nod their head–that’s huge to someone who needed it but didn’t know it.
    Right now I’m going through something that really was a shot to the heart, and the only person I know that I’m not afraid to talk about it with is them. I wish I could share it with someone, but I don’t want them to think of another person in bad light. I wish I could get it off my chest and out of my mind.

  7. Well, whinybaby… for starters? Your honesty & sincerity is top shelf! I think this speaks volumes in itself. I ama person who does the same with spiders & animals – most likely because they don’t respond like humans cuz they can’t and just have to accept whatever we do.

    Empathy is a tricky thing. How much can one listen & validate without entertaining one’s greif that could potentially lead to an abyss of hopelessness? Our ability to desire to connect and assist for the sake of ‘just wanting to’ is a most incredible human quality which has no grade offered, yet just might be the pinnacle of being human. Perhaps this is love…

    You are not a failure. Just learning. There will always be a person with a tougher life experience – as well as its opposite. I’ve found (as of late) that establishing a time frame to be with this person in situation – even if on your own terms, might be a good way to establish the listening & caring necessary to keep you and them in check. But there is no real line in the sand. Sometimes leading someone hand-in-hand to a possible solution after listening intently is a nice way to support, empathize, but not get lost. If the person isn’t ready to move forward, its NOT your fault. If you have 15 gallons of love & empathy to offer and you sense someone needs 25 gallons, you’re 10 gallons short no matter what you do. Someone else may come along after you with 55 gallons… there is an apparent order in this chaos… at least that’s what I tell myself.

    It’s ultimately your personal decision. Keep your head held high. You’re a beautiful soul for telling it like it is… and asking when you don’t know!!! Do you know how many act like they know, when they really don’t? Of course you do… 😉 And then may do more harm than honesty…

  8. I agree with the commenter who said to just make them aware that you love them and are there if they should need you.
    I too suffer with comforting people sometimes, but will cry at a Hallmark/Publix/Sitcom/Etc. at the drop of a hat. Makes zero sense to me.

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