When sad and unfortunate things happen to people, others are afraid of what to say and avoid it. Many years ago, when my husband was unemployed, people avoided speaking to us. Some crossed the street so that they would not have to speak to us directly or look us in the eye. I was aware of the change in attitude and it was not a comfort that the topic was avoided. In fact, it made me feel more alone and isolated in a situation that already separated me from a life that was before…… The line that divides before and after can be very long and quite painful. There is always a before and after in any life-altering and changing event, including job loss, bankruptcy, divorce, illness, or death. People struggle through hardships and battles every day whether or not we acknowledge it.
So, I am taking it upon myself to share the intimate secrets of the big elephant in the room with you.
The first thing that you have to realize is that our misfortune is not contagious. Secondly, we know that a really lousy thing happened to us, so your avoidance of it does not change it in any way. Thirdly, a kind word, even if you feel insecure, makes such a big difference. You might not even remember the couple of words that you said, but I will remember them and it will affect my mood, my feelings and even how I feel about you.
With the loss of my mother, the way and how people spoke to me and my family meant a great deal. Regardless of the words, the intent to comfort and pure caring struck so deeply into my broken heart and fogged brain. Although thinking or speaking clearly was so hard the week after her passing, those who visited, spoke, called and listened made a huge impression on me and I still think of their heartfelt and generous words.
Somebody said to me recently that he had heard every terrible thing imaginable said about him and the cruel things that were said were inconceivable. He was a changed person; he had to live through the crisis and the effect on his family life. Yet, people felt that they had to let him know how awful he was. Do you think that he did not know the tragic errors that led to his downfall? Of course he did, but he still suffered in the intervening years. He was so grateful for the few kindnesses extended to him when everyone else turned away. It meant more to him than anyone would or could ever fully know.
When a couple separates or divorces, people pick sides. Sometimes, in the effort to console, you will be told that it was a good thing because your ex was a miserable person. But that ex is someone that you once loved deeply and believed would always be a magical part of your life. Don’t pretend that it did not happen or that it did not hurt.
I would much rather hear the truth than a phony answer because you think it would make me more comfortable. Honesty is always more healing than falsehood and support is always more welcome than betrayal. Just remember that a kind word of compassion, no matter how small but sincere, helps the healing process.
Empathy does not mean that you have to know all the right words to say or even be able to fix the situation. There are no rules or guidelines for dealing with someone else’s pain. Empathy means trying to say something anyway. Empathy cannot fix or undo the passages, but can merely help make a situation tolerable even if only for a few minutes.
The kindness you do today may be forgotten by you, but remembered by the recipient always. No act of kindness is so small that it does not make a big difference to someone else.
What act of kindness do you remember?