Just be there and keep it real. Well, that was easy. Oh, you’d like me to elaborate? Sure thing.

Most of us have, at least once, experienced being with someone whose challenges were greater than our capacity to know the right thing to say to be comforting. In the last 3 months I have seen a tremendous amount of this, both from a distance and up close. I have written about other facets of how we struggle with the impotence of our inability to “fix” something, but what about that basic and seemingly mundane question of just what the heck you’re supposed to SAY? The moment comes when you are face to face with someone suffering immensely (due to illness, loss or whatever else) and “I’m . . . I’m SO sorry” just feels inadequate. So then what?

I have observed two common responses, both of them understandable. One is to withdraw completely – if I don’t know what to say, then even making contact is going to be so awkward that I’m going to turn away. The other is to try to come up with SOME comforting thing to say. Maybe “I haven’t experienced what you’re experiencing, but my cousin has,” or maybe “I have experienced something else I perceive to be a parallel, and thus I can relate to what you’re going through.” Or perhaps “it’ll get better” or “let’s focus on this silver lining.” Religion can enter in as well, whether it be “don’t blame God” or “it’ll all be better when you get to Heaven.” Any of these things are legitimate, but are they helpful? And, more to the point, are you saying them because YOU need the comfort of feeling like you’ve contributed something?

Sometimes the truth of a situation is so hard that words are inadequate. But just as we have all experienced not knowing what to say, I really HOPE everyone reading this has also experienced at least one moment in which somebody provided genuine comfort by simply being present. If so, you know what that feels like – being present means not just physically occupying the same space, but also being attentive and sincere. That person may not be solving your problems, and you may not even be able to quantifiably explain what he or she is doing, but you can just FEEL that you’re not alone. Any one of us who has experienced this at least once as the person suffering has that point of reference and thus the corresponding wisdom to be there for another in that way.

I am not saying that words are bad, mind you (wouldn’t that be the pot calling the kettle black?), I’m simply pointing out that they have their place. If it’s someone you know well, maybe you genuinely understand how the suffering person ticks and thus you know you will be providing needed perspective and wisdom. Totally cool. Or maybe there is some piece of tangible information that will actually improve the situation – if I’m suffering because of a curable medical condition and can’t see a doctor for a week, I will certainly appreciate your words if they are informing me of the great doctor up the road who has a vacancy this afternoon.

If saying something is a contrived act, however, it is unlikely it will bring about the desired result. By simply being present, you share the profound gift of inhabiting the truth together. Processing trauma and all its cousins (grief, fear, anger, despair, etc.) is a long, complicated process, and that is all the more true for extreme and/or ongoing challenges. Someone enduring that does not need the additional burden of having to manage your emotions or adapting his or her thought process to accommodate the way you want to talk about things. The impulse to “fix” is a potentially noble one, but so often it is about our discomfort with the circumstances and not about really assessing what would be most helpful. If you commit to being present in whatever truth lies before you, you are in a sense relinquishing your sense of control (however false that sense may be), and that can be hard.

Do not fret, though, this ain’t rocket science, and the benefits to using this kind of honest presence as your point of reference are substantial:

1 ) Focusing on being present in the truth relieves you of the thankless burden of fixing the unfixable.

2 ) If, in fact, there is some wisdom somewhere in the ether that genuinely could be comforting or helpful, inhabiting the truth is the only way to access it. Your openness and presence will give you greater access to whatever pathways to healing may exist than the battering ram of well-meaning advice ever could.

3 ) You are reinforcing that the truth won’t destroy you. This is a phenomenon I understand well, though it never crystallized in my mind until a few weeks ago when I attended a lecture by the brilliant Dr. Arthur Frank, author of the Wounded Storyteller. In discussing people with chronic illness (such that the narratives of their lives lose basic coherence), he talked about the benefits of caregivers simply being compassionately present. The element that really turned on the light bulb for me, though, was the notion that people experiencing that kind of extreme suffering can worry that it is somehow contagious, that their suffering will destroy others. In that sense, the very act of being present and unscathed by that presence gives those suffering permission to experience the full range of genuine emotion without fear of destroying their support structure from the sheer weight of

I wish this were an abstraction, but this part I understand well. The easiest example to discuss is how as a kid with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, I learned early on that the adults around me had a limited capacity to endure the stress of my injuries – their own stress, never mind mine. So, being a smart kid, I concluded that there was no room for me to experience emotions around that – by the time I was 8, I was responding to rather gory injuries without crying or losing my cool, at least not in front of other people, a pattern that became deeply embedded.

The other day I recalled the party where I dislocated my knee in a seemingly benign game of balloon volleyball. The other kids flocked away, save for one who stayed and talked to me (thanks Fred – haven’t seen you in 20 years, but I will never forget you for that), and when I got home I took a deep breath and walked up to my room without a limp so as not to arouse suspicion and create anxiety that I simply couldn’t handle above and beyond my own.

If this sounds like a positive thing (e.g. I learned to be tough) then I suppose you can disregard this advice. If this sounds kind of sad, then hopefully it reinforces my point. I assure you that if I can be honest about my suffering and I don’t see you wither in response, you are doing something really positive.

4 ) If, in fact, you feel like the truth WILL destroy you, then what a great opportunity to work on your personal infrastructure. Maybe you need therapy (or more therapy) to deal with some of the skeletons in your own closet that hinder your ability to withstand others’ suffering. Maybe you need to borrow a book from the library about healing. Maybe you need to learn about being present, through one of the varied disciplines that focus on that. Maybe you need to solidify your own support structure. Any of these things will benefit you, of course, regardless of how you use them to help others, and as with so many things in life, sometimes it takes some adversity to alert us to the places where we have work to do.

There are many people enduring hardship in the world. There are, however, many who either are not or who are managing well enough to have some surplus energy to help others. Call me a fruitcake, but I do think that if we can be present with one another in this way, it can facilitate a flow of energy whereby extreme suffering is dissipated, and what is overwhelming for one person can be shared by many, in manageable increments. It all starts with being present in the truth.

5 Responses

  • So beautifully put, Noah. We are not very good at grieving in this culture … especially not in the long term. Too much well-intentioned “fixing.” And what we really need to do is be there, wherever there might be, bearing witness with the grieving person … knowing, and accepting, that we all process grief differently.

  • CraigN

    Excellent advice. Here’s mine: A hug is worth a thousand words.

  • Virginia

    Wise words from the heart and the soul.

  • Steve

    Wise words, my friend. Thank you.

  • Amen!

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