Okay. The moment I started writing reviews of things people said to me after the death of my daughter, I realized that a lot of what I’d written was going to sound angry, or snarky, or just plain rude to people who don’t understand, or don’t get it, or have never been confronted with anything harder than receiving a two percent latte when they asked for a skinny. So I want to make something utterly and transparently and fantastically clear: I have a huge amount of compassion for those people.
Just writing “those people” threatens to cause me to break out in nervous purple hives—because those people are me. They are you. They are the people who you think should get you, should understand what you mean when you say “I’m having a dark day.” But they don’t always. I don’t always. I can’t always. I am not you and you are not me. And we do not have the same experience about what the words “Best Pizza in Town” means, so how can we possibly know what we mean when it comes to deep, dark, raw emotions?
That person who says “I know exactly how you feel?” They don’t. You know they don’t. They are just saying something. They’re filling the silence. They’re trying to make a connection. They are trying to share your pain. Maybe they are doing it poorly, but many of us were never taught to be truly compassionate, so we try something that appears to work in other situations, or we grab a ready-to-wear response that never seems to fit properly. (I have a feeling real compassion is something that should come naturally to us, but it’s drummed out of us somehow by Hallmark and daytime television and instant messaging.)
When someone says to me “I know exactly how you feel,” I want to say, “No you don’t.” I don’t say that, because it feels rude, and it’s taken me a long time to come around to another way of thinking about it. In the future what I want to say is “No you don’t, but that’s okay.” I can hear them already. “No, I get it. Your daughter died, and I had a puppy that was hit by a car.” Yeah. Okay. I can see where you’re coming from with this, but you really need to shut up now. (They almost never shut up. It is in our nature, apparently, to dig a hole and when we find we’ve struck lava to just keep digging.)
But I want to return the favor here before the favor is even given. I want to be compassionate with the person who is reaching out to me. I want to share the feeling of “I DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO SAY TO YOU RIGHT NOW SO I’M GOING TO TELL YOU ABOUT MY DEAD DOG.” Probably the best thing I can do is to just tell them it’s okay that they don’t know what to say. It’s okay, in fact, to say nothing. It’s okay to just sit in silence with a person who’s grieving and not know what to say. You can think about your dead puppy without mentioning it. (I agree, having your dog die is really really hard and painful, but it does both your dog and my child a disservice to compare the two.) If you share a moment or an hour or a week with a person in pain, you do not have to solve the pain for them. There is nothing you can do that will fix it. Just share the moment or the hour or the week. That is the most important thing you can do.
Here’s a thing I like about my current therapist. (I know I know. Just bear with me a minute. I promise not to bore you with a tedious “you should be in therapy” story.) I go in, and we talk about my pains and troubles and difficulties, and it doesn’t actually even feel like he’s trying to push me into doing anything. He sits there and reflects. I see my stories in his eyes, and in doing so I get some clarity. And that’s pretty much it. My wife sometimes jokes with me that today’s the day I’m going in and get “fixed.” But in truth the most helpful thing he does is just listen in a respectful way and try to make a connection with whatever it is I’ve said.
Holy crap. What if I had a whole gaggle of friends like that? People who would just listen and make a connection and not judge and not try to fix me?
Wait a minute. Do I have friends like that?
I don’t know. I don’t think we allow ourselves to be that person who can just listen. I also don’t allow myself to find out if someone I know could be the friend who would do that for me. I put the responsibility of listening to my woes onto my therapist, and otherwise disregard them. Because who wants to listen to me bellyache all the damn time?
It’s hard for me to open up, to be fully honest about my emotions. Hell, it’s supremely difficult for me to find the exact words to express them in a way that makes any kind of sense. It’s impossible for me to believe that if I allow myself to be vulnerable with other human beings who are not being paid to listen that they will do anything but crush me with a story about their dead puppy.
But I do know this: Every time I tear down someone’s ill-timed response to my pain, I almost immediately regret it. I do not want to shut that person out. I want to have compassion for them. They cannot know what it feels like for me to have a daughter who died before she was born. The only way for them to come close to understanding is to have it happen to them, and I would wish that on nobody. But the thing I feel for my daughter? You know what that pain comes from? It comes from love. I love her so strongly that it felt as if her death might take me along with her. And I wouldn’t trade that love for anything.
So when someone says something unfortunate in response to hearing about my daughter, I should respond with compassion. I’m very sorry that I didn’t get to know my daughter, but I do get to love her, and I am a better, more complete person for it. The person telling me about their puppy knows nothing at all how I feel, but they do know something, and they are trying to share that something with me. They seem bungling and pitiful, but it’s not their fault that can’t ever know the landscape of how I love my daughter.
You did not get to love my daughter Grace and can never love her as I do. And I will never know the love you have for those you grieve. Let’s admit that my pain is not greater than yours, and yours is not greater than mine, but that they are different, and that love is beautiful and important, and when words fail us it is just fine. Words are not required when it comes to compassion. All that compassion requires is more than one person gathered in the name of love.