Posted in Life As I Know It, Soapbox

Because a Paper Cut Hurts, Too

This pandemic is an evolution in many things—plans, treatments, predictions, messaging—but I see one consistent byproduct: the conflicted feelings of comparative suffering. All of us have lost something, but there are those who have lost everything…and that can make us feel guilty about mourning our own losses.*

My dad died shortly after I turned 21, and within a year or so, one of my mom’s friends lost her husband, too. My mom invited the friend over to offer some support and their conversation left a lasting mark on me. It was where I learned how “at least” is rarely the start of a helpful comment when it comes to support or empathy.

My mom was attempting to connect with the woman by telling her that she knew some of what she was going through because of her own loss. “But at least you had a chance to say goodbye…” was the friend’s response. You see, my dad had died after a struggle with cancer. The friend’s husband had died in a tragic crash. My mom was taken aback by the comment and tried to “defend” her own loss, “Yes, but I also got to see him suffer for months…”

It was the strangest damn thing. An effort to comfort and support became a grief ranking. Frustrating…but very human. Turns out we humans are a very frustrating bunch.

But being aware of this tendency helps us to tame the comparative suffering beast a bit. Recognizing it and then reminding ourselves that both “sides” are true allows us to both feel for ourselves and others. Everyone’s pain is their own.

When the reality of school closings and events canceled started to take shape, as a parent, my heart immediately started breaking. The death toll from the coronavirus felt very distant at that point, but my son’s losses were right in front of me. He is an involved school kid, and he lost a lot: concerts, competitions, a play that he was the lead in, and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Iceland with his buddies. In fact, I started a list of “Covid castaways” to chronicle all the “misses.” The list grows every week.

When I first talked to him about these things, I started to choke up. “Aw, Mom—you don’t get to be more upset than I am…don’t worry, I’m all right,” he comforted. But I think his seeing my acknowledgment of the pain helped him. It is a sad thing, and he (and we) are not being selfish to feel badly about it.

It is our immediate instinct to downplay the loss because we know others have it so much worse. Death. Illness. Job loss. A missed school play seems so trivial in the light of these losses…but it still hurts, and the hurt is valid.

Everyone’s experience is differently the same… we are home and isolated doing what is helpful but doesn’t feel helpful at all. Not when there are others who are doing so much more and suffering so much more. Whether we are worried about our financial futures or are mourning the loss of a loved one, the spectrum of anxiety, loss, and hurt is vast. Yet we are indeed all in this together.

It is only when those of us on the “loss spectrum” don’t honor or acknowledge those further down the spectrum that the embracing of our own feelings can really turn into a negative. Our pain may be all that we feel firsthand, but it doesn’t mean that it is the only pain that exists or matters.

It really boils down to two things:

  1. No matter what degree of pain you are going through, it matters, and you should acknowledge it and feel it while at the same time validating those who are dealing with what we understand as more pain and honoring that but also understanding that that doesn’t mean your own pain isn’t painful nor is anyone else’s because all pain is painful.
  2. #1 applies to everyone.

Simple, right?

This pandemic has been a huge exercise in learning that feeling for the losses of others does not mean we have to deny our own losses. Nor does feeling our own pain take away from our capacity to be empathetic and supportive. The more we strive to understand it all, the better we will come through it.

And wouldn’t it be great to come through it having learned to be kinder and more caring to one another?

A girl can dream.

*Please know that the above rambling does not constitute my thinking I am an authority on any matter. If you are interested in reading more on this subject from actual experts, Brené Brown and David Kessler are great resources.

Posted in Life As I Know It, Soapbox

2017—Will It Be a Year Full of Mercy?

Over the last several years, I’ve pretty much had a “word of the year” choose me. It’s a ritual I didn’t set out to create, but one that continues to show itself to me. It’s actually kind of weird. Continue reading “2017—Will It Be a Year Full of Mercy?”

Posted in Life As I Know It, Soapbox

Pardon Me, But Do You Know Whose Shoe This Is?

With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror and the rest of the holiday season square in our headlights, there’s lots swirling about for most of us. Life is busy enough, but then add in the extra holiday stresses and pressures, and no wonder “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” can ring hollow.  Continue reading “Pardon Me, But Do You Know Whose Shoe This Is?”

Posted in Life As I Know It, Soapbox

The JudgmentAL World of the Know-It-All

Does having a belief or opinion always mean you’re being judgmental? Judgment, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is the ability to make decisions or to make good decisions, or the act of developing an opinion, especially after careful thought. But add an “al” to the end of the word, and the definition changes to tending to form opinions too quickly, especially when disapproving of someone or something.

I think we’ve got a lot of +ALs flying around these days. Continue reading “The JudgmentAL World of the Know-It-All”

Posted in Life As I Know It

Sitting with You in the Suckiness

Losses. Fights. Scarcity. Illness. Abuse. Accidents. We don’t need Freud to tell us that no one gets through life unscathed. We merely have to live it. And I’ve lived long enough to experience how the hard parts of life help create you—shape you. Continue reading “Sitting with You in the Suckiness”

Posted in Soapbox

No, I’m Pretty Sure I Rank Higher

If a sentence begins, “Well, at least YOU…” you can bet your sweet bippy that it is a comparison that aims to show the speaker in greater need or pain than the listener.

“Well, at least YOU know some of the people at the party. I don’t know anyone.”

“Well, at least YOU have a job to complain about. I can’t even find work.”

“Well, at least YOU have a kid who tries to get good grades. I can’t get mine to care.”

 

star winner2

 

You get the idea. There are some people who always seem to need to rank higher on any “scale” of life being discussed. Kristen Wiig’s Penelope character from Saturday Night Live is the queen of “one-upping”:

 

YOU WILL HAVE TO CLICK ON THIS LINK TO SEE THE VERY FUNNY VIDEO OF PENELOPE BECAUSE NBC AND WORDPRESS ARE MAKING MY LIFE DIFFICULT.

 

Most of us are not Penelopes. (Thank God!) But I think it’s safe to say that most of us have been guilty of occasionally one-upping someone—even another’s pain. For whatever reason, we sometimes feel the need to have our own situation acknowledged as primary. Maybe it’s rooted in the frustration of feeling unheard, but…no matter what…it’s annoying. And it’s super annoying when it’s about another’s pain or loss.

Within the year after my dad died from his battle with cancer, another family suffered the loss of a husband and father in a car accident. My mother was friends with the new widow, and she offered her comfort in her time of loss. I will never forget the woman’s response. She said, “Well at least you were able to say goodbye. You knew your husband was dying, and you had that time with him. I didn’t. Mine was gone in an instant.”

You know in cartoons how sometimes a character gets hit or mowed down and then they get up and try to briskly shake off the effects? That was my mom. She eventually replied, “Yes, I did have that time to say goodbye. But I also saw him suffering for months, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

I remember sitting there and wondering what the point was of this “grief contest” that the widow created. Both women lost their spouses. One got to say goodbye. The other didn’t. One’s husband suffered at length. The other’s husband was gone in a flash. Was there a prize for greater loss?

It was unfortunate that what should have been two people coming together in pain that they each understood all too well instead became a “Oh, yeah? Well, my grief is greater” conversation.

Clearly the widow was hurting and trying to make sense of things, so we have to put the conversation in that context and give her grace, but…it really stuck with me.

Clinical psychologist Susan Silk created the “ring theory” to illustrate a simple way for people to know how to avoid saying the wrong thing to someone going through a crisis. It’s completely common sense, but we are not always led by common sense now, are we?

 

ring theory
(Illustration by Wes Bausmith…)

 

 

In a nutshell, comfort moves toward the center (the person in crisis or pain), and any kind of comparing or complaining can only be shared with someone in a larger ring.

This theory allows for the widow of my story to say whatever because of the loss she is suffering, but since my mom was in the same boat, they were pretty much together in the same ring.

It’s not rocket science to understand that you shouldn’t tell someone who just lost a job that your boss is a real d-bag, but…sometimes we do.

Or if someone is sharing with you that they feel a certain way to cut in and say, “oh, yeah, me too! For me it’s like…” but…sometimes we do.

Or if someone is going through something as horrific as the loss of a child to say that we understand that loss because we’ve lost a parent…but…sometimes we do.

We are so very human, but we need to fight the urge to chime in and one-up one another.

We all know our own struggles best. After all, we are the ones going through them. It makes sense that we would feel most intensely about them. But that’s how it is for everyone.

Very often the ideal response to someone going through a challenge or crisis is so very, very simple: Listen. Listen so well that they feel heard.

It is so simple that sometimes it feels like it’s not enough. I need to do something. I need to help them or give them advice. But it is often perfectly enough. And if it’s not, the person will probably let you know.

Listen so that they know what they are saying matters to you. That they matter to you. It’s pretty impossible to say the wrong thing listening. The whole being quiet thing really reduces your chances of doing so.

Listening is a practice that is ongoing with every person and every situation. It’s never the same twice. But it always matters.

Want to rank high at something? Be an amazing listener.

At least that’s what I heard.

 

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