I have been in several situations lately where even I, as a psychologist, feel at a loss about what to say to someone. Because the pain they are experiencing is so intense. Because there’s nothing that will make it better. Because the situation is just so awful. It’s a strange feeling for me really – to be listening to someone and in the back of my mind have this white noise of, “Say Something You Moron!!!”. It feels panicky and idiotic that after 5 years of doctoral training and more than a decade in practice, I could still feel this way. But when I think about it, it’s the most human thing on the planet.
Most of my friends and family don’t often ask me for professional advice, which I’m grateful for, but when a request like that does come down the pipe, 90% of the time it’s wanting to know what they should say to someone who’s in pain. The advice that I always give is to say very little actually – that it’s far more important to just listen. I recently have been reminded how difficult that can be. When we see someone we love in agony, we want to help. We want to fix it. We want to advise. We want to reassure. All of those instincts are coming from a really great place, but often times they aren’t what the other person needs. So if our loved ones don’t need us to tell them what to do, how to think or what to feel, then what DO they need??
Well if you asked the rational me in these moments recently where I was sitting with folks and the pain was so great it put me in a state of panic, I wouldn’t have been able to answer this question. My brain was not functioning properly in these moments – I felt completely overwhelmed by the intensity of their distress and couldn’t come up with words. So I did what came naturally and followed my gut instinct: I cried with them. There was nothing to say…nothing to do…nothing to fix. It was awful and to say anything other than that would’ve been disrespectful in the deepest sense because it would’ve minimized just how terrible their situations were and I clearly didn’t want to do that. So I allowed myself to experience their pain and to feel my own pain for them and cried. We cried together. And in that moment, the connection that I felt with these two women was incredible. The connection had always been there – I care deeply for them both – but I had been inadvertently blocking that connection with all of the worry about “what to say”.
We constantly underestimate the value of simply sitting with someone in their pain – of feeling their pain with them – and often times, it’s one of the few ways to give someone the love and support they need during an incredibly difficult time.