10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear When I’m Hurting

September 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

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“Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief.” —Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids

The losses involved with cross-cultural transitions are many, and not all will be voiced as simple answers to the question “What do you miss the most?” They include relationships, dreams, purpose, status, identity, and some things that defy labels.

When someone is grieving a loss—whether of a loved one or of opportunities or of “home”—we tend to search for something to say rather than for a chance to listen. And when we speak, we too often don’t invite the person to express her sadness. Instead, we say what we hope will make the grief go away.

Why are we so uncomfortable with grief? Of course, we don’t like for our friends to be sad, but how often does our discomfort also come from not wanting to be around sad people?

At the risk of being hypocritical, I’ve made a list of things that I don’t like to hear when I’m sad and hurting. I’m afraid that I’ve said most of them myself and probably will continue to do so from time to time. But I’m trying to listen more and talk less. I’m trying to allow grief to run its course in others and not try to make it go away so that can get on with life.

I need to give credit to a small book, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, for it’s inspiration and validation. At just over 100 pages, this guide by Ginny Callaway is full of practical advice for what to say and what not to say, for what to do and what not to do when helping a grieving friend. From her own experience—Callaway’s ten-year-old daughter died in a car accident—and from talking with others, Callaway knows what she’s writing about. Even though the subject of her book is grief caused by the death of a loved one, her advice is valuable for dealing with people grieving other losses as well.

You may not agree with my list. Some items may seem rather picky, and some may be the things that in fact cheer you up. But if I do nothing else, I’d like to initiate an inner conversation on how our words may sound, even if they come from the best of intentions.

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear . . . and Shouldn’t Say:

1 – I know how you feel.
(This was first on Callaway’s list, too.)

We don’t know exactly how others feel, and even if we’ve gone through something similar, it’s only similar, not exactly the same. We don’t know everything from a person’s past that has culminated in the present emotions. “I know how you feel” doesn’t invite much further sharing. You might try saying something like, “I know a little of what you’re going through,” that is, if it’s true.

“I know how you feel” often leads to . . .

2 – Let me tell you what happened to me.

This is not a time to one-up someone. We shouldn’t invalidate others’ experiences or their emotions. Maybe my friend moved three times in a year. Telling her that I’ve moved six times says, “Compared to me, you don’t have the right to feel sad.” This phrase is a close cousin to “We all have our problems.”

3 – Do you mind if I take this call?

When we’re having deep, important conversations with others, a you’re-important-enough-to-me-that-I’ve-set-aside-this-time-for-you talk, we shouldn’t even have our phones out, ringing, beeping, or buzzing. Just being able to see a cell phone during a conversation distracts from building relationships. We shouldn’t acknowledge a ring unless it’s to silence the phone. And we shouldn’t answer our phones unless we’re on call for an emergency situation. It’s not always possible to escape distractions, but that means we need to do a better job of choosing our times and places.

4 – Everything happens for a reason. (It’s all part of God’s plan. It wasn’t meant to be.)

I actually don’t believe this to be true. Maybe you do. Either way, it’s not a cure-all that makes the pain go away, even though that’s often how it’s used. It’s become something that too many people say with little thought to the theology behind it. This often sounds like “Why are you sad? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” But if the things that have occurred happen not to feel like good things, then remember . . .

5 – When one door closes, another one opens.

A more spiritualized version of this is “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” I haven’t figured out which chapter of the Bible this verse comes from. It’s one of the many platitudes that people say to make everything OK. Feel-good sayings tell the listener just that: “Feel good.” They are often used to tie problems up in a bow and to do the same for many a conversation: Now that we’ve solved that problem, we can talk about something else.

6 – Let me know if you need anything.

Many people who are huting emotionally feel as if they’re burdening others and can be embarrassed by how needy they’ve become. Saying “Let me know if you need anything” puts the ball in their court to ask for help. And even though we’ve made the offer sincerely, when someone considers sharing a need, it’s very easy for him to feel as if he’s imposing. Instead, we should continue to ask what his needs are . . . and also help without an invitation.

7 – It could be worse. (You have so much to be thankful for.)

Of course it could be worse. But that’s not the point. It’s bad enough. Words saying that a person’s problems don’t deserve the grief being expressed can lead that person to hide his sorrow, convinced that his feelings aren’t justified. Hidden sorrow doesn’t go away, it just shows up later as unexplained despair, anger, physical ailments, and the like.

8 – You need to move on.

It’s no fun to be stuck in a difficult place, but that place may seem like the only option. When the routines of the past are gone, and the future is frighteningly unsettled, what does progress look like? It’s not simply putting on a smile so that others feel more comfortable.

9 – I want the old you back.

There’s a good chance the grieving person wants her old self back, too. It may seem as if the grief is the cause of the change, but often, one of the losses that the person is grieving is the loss of the person she used to be. That loss wasn’t chosen. It wasn’t planned, expected, or wanted. And coming “home” doesn’t mean the changes will automatically go away.

And last, but not least . . .

10 – This is just a season.

Doesn’t it seem that for Christians every period of time has become a “season”? When people tell me that my difficulties are only a season, I hear them say that they will end soon, and spring is around the corner. How do they know? What if my winter lasts for 8 years? Why don’t we call the good times “just a season”?


I Need to Listen with Grace, Too

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I’ll step down off my rickety soapbox and look at things from another angle. As a sometime recipient of the words above, I also understand that I need to receive with grace my friends’ efforts—even when I’m hurting. I need better to hear their concern even when the words don’t feel right.

Missionary Rachel Marie Stone and her fellow authors address this in their Christianity Today article, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing.” She writes that “listicles” of “things you should never say” are all the rage but often misguided.

I’ll stand by my list, but I’ll also take her point to heart:

Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She’d been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:

“I just can’t stand the thought of all the stupid things people at church might say to me about this experience,” I told her.

“But people will say stupid things,” she said kindly. “The question is, how will you receive those stupid remarks?”

It seemed to me then that my own sense of the importance of right words did not necessitate my hair-trigger outrage at hearing “wrong” words. I could survive thoughtless remarks, choosing to hear, beneath them, the genuine concern and impulse to connect that underlies so much of our imperfect human communication.

When I’m helping, I’ll do my best not to say the wrong things. When I’m being helped, I’ll do my best to hear those best intentions.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Ginny Callaway, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, High Windy Press, 2011; Rachel Marie Stone, Megan Hill, and Gina Dalfonzo, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing,” Christianity Today, August 5, 2014)

[photo: “365 0127,” by Tim Caynes, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Nancy Berns: “Closure Doesn’t Exist,” Let Grief and Joy Be Intertwined

July 2, 2013 § 3 Comments

4677361453_f392fc8e47_n“What have you grieved in the past?” asks Nancy Berns, a sociologist at Drake University. “What might you grieve in the future? And some of you are grieving today. It’s not just the death of loved ones that we grieve. Our life is full of losses.”

These include the losses associated with transitioning between homes and cultures, away from family, friends, and the familiar.

When faced with that grief, we usually look for ways to move on, to find closure. But according to Berns, “Closure doesn’t even exist. It’s a made up concept that we use to talk about loss and grief.” And trying to gain closure “can do more harm than good.”

in her TEDxDesMoines talk below, Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, says that we shouldn’t box up our pain, close the lid, and walk away to look for a separate place of joy. In a previous post I asked, “Can Grief and Joy Coexist?” Berns is convinced that not only do they exist together, but they are intricately intertwined.

Listen to her explain this relationship and open a box to share stories of people expressing their grief . . . and joy. Hers is a message for those who are grieving and for those know others who are dealing with sorrow. And that pretty much includes us all, doesn’t it?

Knowing that joy and grief can be carried together is so important,” says Berns, “because it’s a long journey without the possibility of joy.”

So the next time that you see someone who’s entering that space of grief—might be a family member, might be a friend, a coworker, just someone you recently met—don’t hand them a box. Don’t tell them to find closure. Meet them where they’re at. And they might be broken and down and beaten up.

Then, kneeling on the stage, she continues:

Meet them where they’re at. And while you’re there, take a moment and look around, ‘cause you might be surprised at the view you have when you’re on your knees. And if you’re the one broken, you might be surprised at how comforting it can be to have someone just meet you where you’re at, not to try and get you to stand before you’re ready, not to try and take away your pain or explain it away. Just to be with you. And when you’re ready, to give you a hand up, to take those steps. . . . You see it’s not about closure. Healing? Yes. But that’s different.

[photo: “Box 5,” by Brenda Clarke, used under a Creative Commons license]

Anne Frank: The Immeasurable Value of a Red-Plaid Diary

June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

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If Anne Frank hadn’t died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 and had gone on to survive the normal maladies of life, she would have turned 84 on June 12 last week.

It was on her 13th birthday, 71 years ago, that she received the gift of a red-plaid autograph book and began using it as a diary. The first words she wrote were,

I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

She then continued to chronicle her life as a young German-born Jewish girl living in Amsterdam under the tyranny of German occupation, as she and her family hid from the Nazis in a set of secret rooms. After two years, in 1944, they were discovered and deported to Auschwitz.

In describing the role of her diary, Anne is also defining the roles of a good listener: A rare confidant who values acceptance over judgment (realizing there will be time for editing and feedback later). A safe friend who reflects back what is heard, allowing the speaker to work through her problems rather than forcing quick solutions. A concerned companion who offers silence—like blank pages—to be filled with another’s valuable stories. An empathetic advocate not afraid to hear raw emotions and honest truth.

May we all be givers of that kind of comfort and support. May we share the qualities of Anne’s red-plaid diary. May we be that kind of gift to someone who needs to be heard.

(Anne Frank, Trans. Susan Massotty, The Diary of a Young Girl, Eds. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, New York: Everyman’s, 2010)
[photo: “Anne Frank Diary at Anne Frank Museum in Berlin,” by Heather Cowper, used under a Creative Commons license]

Even Paul Needed Member Care

April 26, 2013 § 5 Comments

5389776890_84c6406d67_nEven Paul—the apostle, the quintessential missionary, and, to many, the quintessential Christian—needed member care.

At times, Paul stressed his independence. In his letter to the Galatian churches, he affirmed that his role as an apostle came directly from Jesus, not from his association with the other apostles:

But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, but right away I departed to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus.

But Paul wasn’t a loner. He took partners with him on his missionary trips, and he looked to others for encouragement and comfort . . . for member care.

When Paul finally met with the apostles in Jerusalem, Barnabas helped him by being his advocate, vouching for his dedication to Jesus. Later, Barnabas sought out Paul for his help in working with the church in Antioch, and the two were sent out by the church on Paul’s first missionary journey. It was during his trips (three are recorded in the book of Acts) and while he was a prisoner that Paul wrote his New Testament letters, often mentioning those who served to encourage him.

Near the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote about “the household of Stephanus” (or Stephanas), who “devoted themselves to ministry for the saints,” and added,

I was glad about the arrival of Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus because they have supplied the fellowship with you that I lacked. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. So then, recognize people like this.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul told about how he turned away from a God-given ministry opportunity because he needed to hear from Titus:

Now when I arrived in Troas to proclaim the gospel of Christ, even though the Lord had opened a door of opportunity for me, I had no relief in my spirit, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and set out for Macedonia.

Then, in Macedonia,

our body had no rest at all, but we were troubled in every way—struggles from the outside, fears from within. But God, who encourages the downhearted, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. We were encouraged not only by his arrival, but also by the encouragement you gave him, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your deep concern for me, so that I rejoiced more than ever.

While under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote to Philemon, “I have had great joy and encouragement because of your love, for the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” But Paul  had an issue he wanted to address, as well. Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had run away, had come to Paul, and had become a Christian. Paul was sending him back to Philemon, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ, even though Paul wrote, “I wanted to keep him so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.” Paul also looked forward to spending time with Philemon in the future, telling him to “prepare a place for me to stay, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given back to you.”

Still a prisoner, Paul wrote to the Colossians and the Philippians. He told those in Colossae that Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (called Justus) were the only Jewish Christians still working with him, saying “they have been a comfort to me.” And to the Christians in Philippi, he told of his plans to send to them Epaphroditus, whom he described as

my brother, coworker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to me in my need. Indeed, he greatly missed all of you and was distressed because you heard that he had been ill. In fact he became so ill that he nearly died. But God showed mercy to him—and not to him only, but also to me—so that I would not have grief on top of grief. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you can rejoice and I can be free from anxiety. So welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, since it was because of the work of Christ that he almost died. He risked his life so that he could make up for your inability to serve me.

Later, imprisoned in a Roman dungeon, Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, saying, “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy,” and then,

May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my imprisonment. But when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well all the ways he served me in Ephesus.

Alone, except for Luke, Paul told Timothy, “Make every effort to come to me soon,” requesting that he also bring Mark, because “he is a great help to me in ministry.” Paul even mentions some items that he needs (a care package?), asking Timothy to bring along a cloak that Paul had left in Troas, as well as his scrolls.

Even Paul needed member care. Or maybe we should say, given the hardships that he faced, especially Paul needed member care. He needed it, and he appreciated it.

 And if Paul needed it, so do today’s missionaries, every one.

(Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org. All rights reserved. This material is available in its entirety as a free download or online web use at http://netbible.org/.)

[photo: “St. Paul (Burne Jones),” by Lawrence OP, used under a Creative Commons license]

Conversation: noun, “a turning with”

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Steve Smith, author of The Jesus Life and co-founder of Potter’s Inn, recently wrote in his blog,

[I]n the course of life’s seasons, we need to have spiritual conversations with people who are good listeners. Let me be clear here, most people are not good listeners. They listen for facts not feelings. They listen for what they hope to hear. They listen when it may not cost them something.

A spiritual conversation is a reciprocal dialogue between two people where thoughts, opinions and feelings are shared and received. It’s two-way. Not one way.

People who have gone through major transitions—and others who have encountered loss—need good listeners. But what is necessary to be someone who listens well, to be someone who nurtures spiritual conversations? How about compassion and empathy and comfort?

Following is a list of words that I associate with good listeners. We all know what the words mean, but we’ve become fairly complacent in using them. Therefore, as a way to jumpstart our thinking and to help us do a better job of living them out, I’m pairing them with the literal meanings from their origins (with the help of the  Online Etymology Dictionary and other resources). My intent is not to “correct” their modern definitions but simply to give depth to what we already know.

For instance, today a companion is a friend or partner. But the word companion is formed from two parts that originally meant “with” and “bread.” So a companion was someone who shared a meal with another. Even now we understand the link between sharing food and sharing our hearts. Here’s what Smith says about companionship:

I wrote in The Jesus Life that spiritual conversations take place at the table where we eat our meals. . . . It’s never an intent when you ask someone for lunch–to share protein, carbs and water with someone. No, when you ask someone for lunch, you’re really meaning, “Hey, let’s get together so we can share what’s been going on in our lives. It’s been too long. How about next Tuesday at noon at the deli?”  That’s the stuff of conversations where hearts connect and souls meet and people who are lonely become spiritual companions.

Now, here’s the rest of my list:

acknowledge: “to admit understanding or knowing”
from a blending of Old English on, “into,” and cnawan, “recognize,” with Middle English knowlechen “admit”

affirm: “to strengthen”
from Latin ad, “to,” plus firmare, “make firm”

advocate: “someone called to help or plead”
Latin ad plus vocare, for “to” and “to call”

comfort: “to strengthen much”
Late Latin com, “very,” and fortis, “strong”

commiserate: “to lament with”
from Latin com, “with,” and miserari, “to feel pity”

communicate: “to make common”
from Latin commun, “common,” plus the verb suffix icare

companion: “eating partner”
Latin com, “with,” and panis, “bread, food”

compassion: “a suffering with”
Latin com and pati, meaning “with” and “to suffer”

concern: “a sifting” or “comprehension”
from Latin com, “with,” and cernere, “to sift”

confide: “to trust strongly”
Latin com plus fidere, meaning “very” and “to trust”

console: “to give much comfort or solace”
from Latin com, “very,” and solari, “to comfort”

contact: “to touch with”
from Latin com, “together,” and tangere, “to touch”

conversation: “a turning with”
Latin com, meaning “with,” and vertare, meaning “turn about”

empathy: “a feeling in”
Greek en and pathos, meaning “in” and “feeling”

encourage: “to add heart or bravery”
Old French en, “make, put in,” and corage, “heart, innermost feelings”

sympathy: “a feeling together”
Greek syn, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling”

understand: “to stand in the midst of”
Old English under, “between, among,” plus stand

May we better understand these ideas and, in so doing, better understand each other. May we put them into practice. May we all become better companions . . . and better listeners.

(“Steve Smith, “The Power of a Spiritual Conversation,” Steve and Gwen Smith, September 26, 2012)

[photo: “61098,” by Drew Herron, used under a Creative Commons license]

Comfort vs Encouragement: Jesus’ Responses to Mary and Martha

August 14, 2012 § 5 Comments

The past few weeks have been kind of tough for my wife and me. Not long ago, we marked the one year anniversary of our return to the States after living in Taiwan for 10 years. We assumed that by this time we’d have this next stage of our life on track, but instead, we’ve got a lot of loose ends, still looking for full-time work and long-term housing. As Ruth Van Reken says (talking about Third Culture Kids, but it has broad applications), “Every time there’s transition, there is loss,” and then she adds that “where there’s loss, there’s grief.”

One of the ways I’ve dealt with our losses is by attending a “grief group.” While most of the other people in the meetings have lost loved ones, I have found it very helpful to hear their stories and learn general principles for dealing with grief.

The more I hear the experiences of those who are going through difficult times, the more I’m convinced that good listeners are hard to find—and I’m sure I don’t always fall into that category, myself. Too many people would rather offer quick-fix cliches than to share in another person’s grief. In fact, we even have a hard time accepting our own grief. Grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, in The Journey through Grief: Reflections on Healingwrites about the grieving process,

I must keep opening and changing through it all until I become the unique person who has transcended the pain and discovered self-compassion—a vulnerable yet grounded me who chooses to live again.

“Self-compassion” is an interesting concept, as compassion comes from the Latin com and pati, meaning “with” and “suffer,” respectively. So according to Wolfelt, we must discover how to “suffer with” ourselves.

In a previous post, I quoted Van Reken as saying,

There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.

She elaborated on this idea in a presentation I heard her give several years ago, citing a wonderful example from the New Testament: When Jesus traveled to Bethany after the death of his friend Lazarus, Lazarus’s sister Martha came out to meet him:

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

(John 11:221-27 NIV 1984)

This, says Van Reken, is an example of encouragement, given by Jesus because he knew the needs of Martha. But Van Reken sees herself more as a Mary, Lazarus’s other sister. According to Van Reken, Mary didn’t need encouragement, she needed comfort:

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

(John 11:32-35 NIV 1984)

While both sisters said the same thing to Jesus, he responded to them in different ways. Van Reken, in an e-mail discussion by the SIM AMK Task Force, says that while Jesus “appealed to [Martha’s] reason and gave her truth as information,” with Mary

Jesus entered into her experience with the truth of his compassion and comfort. Words to her would have bounced like icicles on her heart. Didn’t anyone CARE? And He showed, He cared. I love it that Jesus knows us well enough to meet us as the people He made us to be. I love it when He meets others in their way—but sometimes when they try to meet ME in their way, or I try to meet them in MY way, we can clash. I think they don’t care because they aren’t on the floor crying with me, and they think I’m a basket case who needs to look at the facts a little more clearly and I’ll be “just fine.”

I think that many of us are Marys. We need tears of compassion rather than words of reason. And I would suggest that, lacking the insight of the Son of God, we would do well to start with the kind of comfort that comes alongside those who are grieving, instead of trying to pull them out of their grief with our words or actions. There will be time for encouragement, when the griever is ready. For many of us, it’s not that we don’t understand the encouraging truths, it’s just that other truths, of loss and pain and sadness, are demanding our attention, and we push them away too soon at our own peril.

“My process has been hard at times because so much of our system of faith precludes the simplicity of the ‘Jesus wept’ verse,” says Van Reken. “And for whoever I am, those kinds of tears will change more for me than anything else. The problem with a quick spiritual answer is I actually KNOW the answer; I’m just not there yet.”

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Alan Wolfelt, The Journey through Grief: Reflections on Healing, Fort Collins: Companion Press, 1997, p 42; Ruth Van Reken, “Mary and Martha,” Simroots Open Dialogue)

[photo: “The Eye of Eliza,” by Augusto Serna, used under a Creative Commons license]

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