I have sat with several friends who have found themselves in very similar situations of loss as mine. This is hard for me. Not only because it brings up my own pain and hurt, but because at times I know what they are going to face even before they do. The sequence of events is often alike with cancer. I want to share what they can expect and what helped me. I want to fix it for them, or at least ease the pain that is so familiar. I want them to work through their pain immediately, so that they can avoid the darkest moments and loneliness that I experienced. Instead, I fight back my urge to talk. I listen. I ache deeply, and more often than not I shed a few tears with them. I try to ask helpful questions to understand where they are at, and I only share the parts of my story that they are ready for or ask about. I know I can’t actually fix it for them, even through I so badly want to. It isn’t something broken that can simply be put back together, rather it is a life long pain that they will have to go through. I can only help them navigate the grief.
It is easy to turn to the fix it mentality around pain. Many of us need to do something…ANYTHING when things are just not right! We were created to brainstorm solutions and take action when we see pain. We don’t like it, and we often hate seeing others that we care for in that state. Pain is uncomfortable! Empathy is being ok with the uncomfortable. It is much easier to have a plan to make the pain go away, rather than sitting, listening, being, and feeling. Unfortunately, there is no way to fix grief. There is no simply 10-step plan like many books may claim. When we try to fix it rather than understanding and affirming how someone feels it only leaves them feeling isolated and misunderstood once again.
Our fix it mentality can also lead to advice. I love giving advice! Don’t you?! I think one of my favorite lines to my friends and husband in a very sarcastic tone is, “if you would have only listened to me!” (Insert Randi’s famous eye roll here). Again, it is much easier to tell people how to fix their pain or even begin to equate their experience with my own, rather than let their pain hurt us both. The latter will cost me much more. The reality is the best advice, maybe even the truest of words, is empty and hurtful when someone is in the darkest pits of grief. Hold on to those words though! There may be a time that those words are needed, but you don’t have the right to share that truth until you first experience their pain with them. The right timing can make those same words that could have caused lasting pain powerful and life giving.
The reality is the best advice, maybe even the truest of words, is empty and hurtful when someone is in the darkest pits of grief.
When my mom was diagnosed with cancer we got all the advice! If she would try this new chemo, drink special water, eat that food, receive positive thoughts at a certain time, or pray hard enough that God would perform a miracle, her cancer would be healed. The list could go on and on! At first, almost any advice was welcomed. We desperately wanted my mom to conquer her cancer. Who knew what could work?! However, there came a time where nothing was working. Our family knew the end was coming, and my mom was in the decision process to quit all treatment. She was seeking other’s permission to stop the exhausting options. I remember the phone conversation when she first mentioned it to me. I wanted to scream NO! She couldn’t stop! She couldn’t give up! I wanted to frantically research one more option that could work. I wanted to make this all go away.
At this point, that is not what my mom needed. She simply needed the people that were ready to grieve the loss of this battle with her. Those who couldn’t give up on their advice, their fix-it mentality, only brought hurt. It was painful for sure to stop, but yet this was the reality we were faced with. Those that could face this reality alongside of us brought comfort and connection. We cannot fix the pain of others, but we can show up and be there.