It’s tricky talking with someone who you know who has just experienced a life-altering tragedy or loss. They may have suddenly lost a family member or members, had a horrible accident, or found out they have a serious disease. Coming to an interaction with someone who is suffering calls you to be relational. You may not know what to say to the other person, and what you say or don’t say could lead to a variety of problems.
A recent New York Times article written by Jane Brody seeks to look harder at what to say- or what not to say. She writes about cancer, noting that “a diagnosis of cancer can tie the tongues of friends and family members or prompt them to utter inappropriate, albeit well-meaning, comments. Some who don’t know what to say simply avoid the cancer patient altogether, an act that can be more painful than if they said or did the wrong thing.” How do you approach these interactions in a way that supports others rather than putting them on the spot or pulling them down? Let’s look harder at how important it is to be engaged and grounded during these difficult interactions.
Don’t avoid the interaction just because you do not know what to say. You avoidance and silence will speak volumes. Being engaged requires you to be fully present, regardless of how difficult that may be. Yes, it is difficult to be there with someone who is experiencing tragedy because it requires you to step inside the other person’s storm and empathize with them. But being engaged will help to show the other person that you are there for them, regardless of whether you say the exact right thing.
Brody pulls a quote from a cancer survivor and communications specialist named Stan Goldberg, who notes that claims that in fact, “often the greatest support comes from silently witnessing what a person with cancer is experiencing. Sometimes only a calm presence and compassionate listening are necessary.” Realizing this, and being humble about your role in the other person’s experience, can help to make the other person feel truly supported.
Being engaged isn’t always related about you- sometimes it simply involves being present with another person, ready to listen when needed.
Be Respectful of the Other’s Person’s Boundaries When Asking Questions
Brody begins her article by recounting an interaction she had with a family member at a party during her own battle against cancer. The family member asked her how she was doing, and Brody told her “I’m fine.” The family member responded: “How are you really?”
“How are you?” the article explains, is a well-meaning but often harmful question. When you ask someone how they are, you usually expect that they will say they are doing well. But chances are that if you know the other person is suffering, you probably have an idea of how they are doing.
Well maybe, maybe not. But that’s all part of being grounded: realizing there are options and being open to them. You can talk about a myriad of other things, but if you feel like you must address the elephant in the room, Brody writes that you can do so in a way that expresses genuine concern for the other person by saying something like “I am so sorry this happened to you” and then asking whether they want to discuss what happened. This gives the other person the agency in the interaction to define their boundaries. An open question holds a huge amount of transformative power. From there, you can respect those boundaries by remaining engaged and present with the other, letting them talk about the grief if they so choose.
Look for Information on what is Needed
Brody notes that “many people now use online sites like caringbridge.org to keep people up to date on their health and needs or organizing platforms such as mealtrain.com or lotsahelpinghands.com to ask for specific help.” This takes some guesswork out of how you can be of help and what interactions are appropriate. You want to do anything that you can to help the other person feel better, but being grounded calls us to be realistic about these wants. What you may want to do might be at odds with what the other person needs. If clear-cut resources are available, it is a great idea to use them to help guide your interactions going forward.
Be Direct and Specific with What You Can Do to Help- Then Do it!
Offering to help can also be tricky if there aren’t any organized online channels available. Asking the suffering person what you can do puts a lot of burden on them. Being grounded, you understand that it is not the other person’s job to come up with ways for you to help them. So what can you do?
Brody suggests being as direct as possible. Come up with some things that you can do to help the other person, like “shop for groceries, care for children, take the dog for a walk, or accompany a patient to the doctor,” and offer these things to the other person. So, rather than saying “”Let me know what I can do to help,” say “I’ll be bringing dinner for your family this week. What day is best for you?’” Taking the guesswork out of the interaction will help it to improve.
If you feel like you don’t want to say you’ll bring dinner without checking that the other person needs it, checking in with someone closer to the person may be your best option. Asking a friend or family member what you can do to help is a much less burdensome way of figuring out what is needed. Being kind and humble means respecting boundaries and working within them.
Being relational in your interactions with people who are experiencing hardship is difficult because it forces you to as, “is my own self-interest guiding this interaction?” We all want people to be healthy and happy but sometimes they just aren’t, and no amount of optimism or well-intentioned small talk is going to change that. It may make you feel better to tell the other person “We’ll get through this together” or “Let me know what I can do to help,” but ask, “Is this helpful for the other person?” or does it help you side step the difficult task of being fully engaged with the other and, consequently, their pain? Sometimes the best thing you can do is be willing to engage fully within that difficult interaction, step inside the other’s storm, and let them know that you are there. Just there. No questions asked.