Recently, the previously unthinkable happened to friends of mine: Their nearly 30-year-old son suddenly and unexpectedly died. My guy and I stopped by their home a few days later to offer comfort and support. I found myself feeling a bit nervous as we drove down their street and got out of the car. Jason echoed my feelings when he turned to me and said, “I don’t know what to say.” I realized my own nervousness, like his, stemmed from not wanting to do or say something stupid. It was with a rush of relief that I replied, “We don’t need to say anything; all we need to do is listen.”
Comfort, not Platitudes.
I knew I didn’t want to offer a comment like: “It’s part of God’s divine plan.” “It was meant to be.” “There’s no way out except through.” “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
I’ve been the recipient of such words. They rang hollow in my ears and provided cold comfort to my broken heart. Truthfully, I know I’ve spoken platitudes, cringing as they left my lips to land leaden in the lap of the person I was wishing to support.
We want to receive BETTER in our times of sorrow. We want to give MORE when it is our time to support. So, why do we offer platitudes?
I believe it comes down to two things:
One is FEAR. We fear our inadequacy to do or to say the right thing. We fear the messy emotions we might encounter. What if there is enough anger to fill up a room, what if there is a bottomless ocean of grief? In an attempt to override our fear and our own inadequacy, we rush to comfort, offering an empty phrase or two.
Two is our desire to FIX. This desire is essentially a kind one. Unfortunately, this need to fix a situation which can’t be put to right, has us busy in our minds searching for a solution and it prevents us from truly being present with what is true in that moment: a heart is breaking and there is nothing we can do except be love.
When we offer platitudes from the need to fix, we essentially slap a band aide over a gaping wound and then back away. A platitude offered from a place of fear is a perfect shield; it keeps us from getting too close to the mess.
What to do Instead.
How do we offer a genuine, heart-felt level of support? My own times of heart-break and sorrow revealed my greatest teachers in how to offer comfort – friends who had gone through their own set of challenges.
These were the individuals who could sit beside me, put a comforting arm around my shoulder, and simply listen. They weren’t in a hurry to try and make me (or themselves) feel better. They understood; grief’s searing pain is part of the healing process, along with tears and words of dismay and anger. They showed up without judgment secretly stowed in their hearts. Life events had presented them a certain reality: smart people make mistakes, bad things happen to good people, and shit happens – platitudes they didn’t find necessary to express. Instead they gave me the gifts of being, of listening, of empathy.
The Gift of Being: This gift is best expressed when we show up willing to simply be with whatever the situation is, with however our loved one is in that moment. By setting aside our own fear and discomfort, by letting go of judgment, or the need to fix anything, we are able to establish a safe environment where grief can find expression, where the full extent of loss can be processed. Being is also felt when we are willing to set timelines aside and let conversations unfold at an unhurried pace.
The Gift of Listening: This gift is the unsung hero in the comfort and support toolbox. Listening with a gentle curiosity, from the place of really wanting to know what the other person is going through is a hugely validating experience for the one sharing his or her life event. Careful, attentive listening demonstrates just how much they matter and acknowledges their suffering.
The Gift of Empathy: This gift is revealed when we bring ourselves fully into our offer of support. When we allow ourselves to dip back into our memory banks of our own experiences, not to overshadow, or overshare, we are able to establish a genuine connection. When our minds are able to access our own range of emotions – fear, anger, sadness, and even joy – our hearts are opened to stepping into someone else’s shoes. We can more readily feel what they are feeling. While accessing these emotions may be a source of personal discomfort, they are also the doorway into being able to offer meaningful, heart-felt support. You won’t need to say something like, “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling!” because, you will be able to have a sense of their experience and this knowledge will let you be the supportive person you want to be.
Next time a loved one is hurting and you feel the urge to fix the situation, or run away and avoid it altogether, simply take a deep breath. Swallow the words forming on your tongue. Allow yourself to exhale without saying anything at all. Again: Inhale and Exhale. Settle down and settle in so you can give the gift of Being, Listening, and Feeling.
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