When I was in high school, a close friend's father died.
I was young and the whole death-thing felt very scary. And so I hid. I didn't know what to say and so I said nothing. I couldn't go to the funeral because of exams, and she went off to university in London shortly after, and so that was that. I was completely absent from that awful chapter of her life.
She wrote me a letter a few months later, telling me how much she missed her father. I did write back. I confessed to being a terrible friend. I said it was selfish and cowardly of me to choose being 'comfortable' over being supportive.
Over the years, I've gotten better at being present through others' pain, and I've learnt that it really isn't about saying the 'right' thing. Our instinct is to comfort, to make things all better again. We try to 'fix' things with promises and platitudes, advice and answers. We basically want to rush them through their pain. And then we feel frustrated when our words don't seem to have the desired effect, or when our loved one has a relapse, as if it somehow undermines our worth.
But what it really says about us, is that we're unwilling to get, and stay, uncomfortable with them.
A couple years ago, that same friend lost her partner. I sent her this beautiful article on grief, which had the perfect advice for me: "Be there. Only be there. Don't leave when you feel uncomfortable or when you feel like you're not doing anything. In fact, it's when you feel uncomfortable and like you're not doing anything that you must stay."
This really hit home when I was on the other side of things. Our 3-week old son, whom we thought was perfectly healthy, was rushed into hospital for major high-risk open heart surgery. We were this close to losing him, and the only thing that was more overwhelming than all the terror and worry and not-knowing, was the incredible love and support we got during that time. And by incredible, I mean lots of teeny, tiny acts of virtual kindness - Facebook messages, texts, prayers of all faiths and practices. Nobody could tell us that everything would be fine. Nobody could physically do anything. But they kept checking in, they kept cheering us on, and knowing that they were all rooting for us made our hearts swell with something bigger than what we were going through.
Admittedly, we chose to share our ordeal publicly (coz, boy, did we need every good and magical vibe that the Facebook world could muster!), which made it easier for people to support. Some pain needs to be experienced privately; some ordeals can drag on for a lot longer; and some stories, unlike ours, don't have happy endings.
If things had turned out differently for us, god, do I hope there'd have been a few kind souls with the stamina to sit out the pain with me. Because it would have taken years. It would have come and gone. It would have punched me in the stomach just when I thought it was finally behind me. I would have struggled with jealousy and resentment from time to time. I would have had a gaping hole in my heart that I'd probably learn to live with and would eventually become a source of empathy and insight etc etc, but I'd have had a lot of darkness to work through. And I hope that wouldn't have scared people away. I hope there'd have been someone willing to get uncomfortable with me, time and time again. Even when they had nothing to say.
Speaking of which, I recently came across the wonderful card-designer, Emily McDowell, who's ironically / appropriately illustrated a new book called There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love. She cuts through all the cheesy hallmark crap and creates cards that tell life as it is. Like dating cards that spell out the awkwardness in your head, or baby cards that promise not to give unsolicited parenting advice, and, best of all, empathy cards like these:
So the next time you're supporting someone you love through a breakup or an illness or a loss, short of getting them one of Emily's cards, just know that no words beat you simply aknowledging their pain, and sitting through their discomfort with them... C x