Years ago my husband had cancer. It was a scary and trying time, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Our friends and family claimed to want a  blow by blow account of what was going on. I warned them, if they really wanted to know, it wouldn’t be pretty. It was a time of blood, biopsies,pain meds, chemo, and transplants. Plus our daughter was still in diapers. Truly, there was a lot of “shit” we were dealing with. We knew it was messy and scary. We were okay with it because it was our daily reality.

Our friends and family hated seeing us in pain. They wanted to “make it better” for us. Just as a mommy kisses a boo boo and puts on a bandaid, our loved ones wanted to do this for us. Yet in trying to “make it better” it almost felt like they wanted us to “forget” or pretend the reality we were living in, wasn’t really happening. Cue the theme from the Twilight Zone.

We knew people were coming from a place of love and tried to remember it. But it would have been so much better to just have them “be with” us. With whatever we were dealing with at the moment.

Here is a snippet from 2007 on our Caring Bridge blog. It sums it up for me, still…

“We know that you are all concerned and curious, but please know this is one tiny part of our lives. There is really so much more that we prefer to talk about. When we are asked a lot of questions about the treatment or the outcome we are thrust right back in the middle of the “crisis” … trust us, there are much better places to be and more interesting things to talk about! We know that you are all concerned and we appreciate that, but we need you to understand at this phase, we don’t want to discuss the details. There are well-intentioned comments that end up backfiring and end up hurting us…. please understand comments like, “did they get it all this time… hope it doesn’t come back again” or “my (filll in the blank… aunt, brother, etc) had cancer and it was just awful” or “my (fill in the blank… friend, teacher, sister-in-law, etc) died from cancer”. We know you are just trying to relate to what we are going through and be empathetic, but there are more effective ways… ask how we are doing. An open ended question gives us the space to provide as much (or as little) detail as we want at that particular time, without having to go into details that we have gone through (at least a million times in our heads and) many times with others.”

Next time you are trying to find the “right thing” to say to someone who is dealing with something difficult, try to just “be with” them. What if you could come from a place that there was nothing to “fix” or “do”. Don’t try to minimize or lessen their pain. “At least” rarely makes things better. In dark times, it’s connection that’s most needed, most wanted… not “silver-lining” it. We teach this in teacher training. There is something powerful about letting someone sit with their experience, or emotion. Not trying to sweep it under the carpet, clean it up, or “make it better”… This approach can be much more complicated for the “observer” but so much more powerful and healing for the one in the “dark hole”.

The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy Explained Perfectly With a Simple Animation.