I’m going to start this post with an interesting hypothetical question that I hope each of my readers will ask him/herself.
Hypothetically, you work in a large corporation with at least 99 other employees. Some of them have desks near yours and/or work in your same department, so you often have daily interactions and occasionally, share personal information – son made honor roll, spouse got a promotion and raise at work, having an anniversary, etc. Other people who work in the same corporation you know very casually – you see each other quite often in the elevator or in the break room. These people get a nod or a quick “hello” from you when you make eye contact, but you really don’t know anything about them.
Now on to the questions: Hypothetically, Betty, from your department, who isn’t someone you necessarily “like“, although you are always cordial with each other, tells someone else in your department that her grandmother passed away. Like in every office, word makes its way through the grapevine, and you hear about it. Do you make it a point to get a sympathy card for her? Do you make it a point to seek her out and extend your sympathies verbally? Or, do you tell yourself that you’ll share your sympathies with her the next time you run into each other?
And, if and when you do choose to extend your sympathies, do you think it’s appropriate – important, even – to share if you’ve had a similar experience?
When someone is going through a hard time and other people share their own similar experiences, the intention might be to show empathy, but the effect often feels like they’re being one-upped. In times of difficulty, most people just need someone to listen, not to make their struggles feel small in comparison. And yet, our idea of showing empathy makes us share our own similar experience as a way of wanting to relate to the sufferer. Do we really think that knowing how it felt for you to lose your grandparent 10 years ago after a long illness is similar to how we’ve just lost our grandparent – and perhaps by different means? I mean, losing a loved one always hurts, but I believe that the pain is more bearable if we’ve watched someone suffer through a fatal illness than it would be if we got a phone call telling us a loved one was killed in a vehicle accident.
And none of that is even my point. My point is that each and every one of us have been trained to offer our sympathies and often a phrase of “if you need anything…”. And while I believe we’re being genuine in offering our assistance, subconsciously, we know that the chances we will be called upon are very slim. There is an initial outpouring of sympathy, there may be sympathy cards, floral gifts, donations in memory. If invited, people may show up to a viewing/memorial service and to a burial service. If invited, people may join with others for a meal afterwards.
And that’s it. People go home and go on about their lives. They’ve offered their “if you need anything, just ask…” words, so they can comfortably assume that if they aren’t asked, they aren’t needed, right? Meanwhile, the survivor(s) are left to sort through belongings of the deceased and make arrangements for them, first, according to any will and then, in a way they feel is proper. Some survivors take this task to hand almost immediately; some survivors still have the loved ones clothes hanging in the closet a year later.
I’m off point again, darnit! What I’m trying to say is that your ‘platitude’ of “if you need anything, just ask…” is most often a waste of breath. When people are suffering, they tend to recoil within themselves, become less social than is normal for them to be. Grief is a unique journey for each of us, and often a different journey based on our relationship with those loved ones. The deeper the grief, the less apt we are to even allow it to surface when we are around other people. And we will most likely choose to escape from all invitations to be around other people unless it is necessary.
A friend of mine lost his significant other at a very young age last fall. She had some ongoing medical issues and dealt with a lot of pain, but it wasn’t expected that she would die at any time in the near future. They had just bought their first house together, and she was looking forward to finally have room to invite family over for the holidays. Her death rocked all of us who knew her because it was sudden and unexpected. And yes, I made the same comment to Chris about letting me know if he needed anything (It’s an automatic response, I swear!). But I quickly became aware of that habit, and so 30 days after her passing, I contacted him and asked him what he needed. I didn’t ask him IF he needed anything, I simply asked him what I could supply for him. His mind was still reeling – I could tell – and he said nothing he could think of. Before another 30 days went by, I made contact again and asked him what I could offer to bring him or do for him. Again, I avoided the word IF like the plague. He said they were doing okay and offered that he’d let me know if they needed something. So, the third time, I waited almost 50 days before I contacted him, letting him know that I was just checking up to see how he was coping and again asked what I could bring or offer to do for him. He said he was starting to get back into a routine of sorts, and that he was beginning to gather the tools and supplies needed to start the first room renovation they had talked about when they first bought the house. He told me that he’d promised her that he’d make it her dream house, and he had no intention of breaking that promise. And by that, I knew he was starting to move forward.
But still, now and again I reach out to him, 8 months after, and just say hello and let him know he’s still in my thoughts. We live a few hours apart, so visiting isn’t an easy option, but I can tell by the sound of his words that he is smiling when I reach out to him, that it reminds him that people are there for him if he needs it.
And so, the point I want everyone to hear is that offering to be there for someone if they reach out is nice in thought, but impractical in process. My mother died in the month of February. On Mother’s Day of that year, I received a note from one of my co-workers just letting me know that she expected that the first Mother’s Day without my mom was going to be difficult, and she wanted me to know she was keeping me in her thoughts and prayers. My mother died in 1999. I still have that note.
Another example to show the difference is this… When I was vehicle-less for several weeks, my bestie would ask me if I needed, for example, to go to the grocery store, and I would always respond with “only if you were going to go anyhow”. One day, she contacted me and didn’t ask, but told me, she was taking me the next day to Walmart, the Dollar Tree AND the grocery store. For me, it was a world of difference between having to ask or even respond and just knowing that someone was going to make sure things I needed to do got taken care of!
What I want my readers to do is be proactive in following up with someone who is hurting or suffering for whatever reason! We make genuine offers of help, but we need to understand that the person to whom we’re making the offer may have one or more reasons why he/she/they won’t proactively ask for help. And we need to be conscious that we ask what a person needs versus telling them what we can offer… “I can come over and help you sort through clothing and shoes” is of no value to someone who isn’t ready to handle that task.
A platitude is defined as:
If you care about someone who obviously needs or could use help in some way, there are two things to remember. First, do not offer that person the ‘privilege’ to contact you for help if it’s needed. Second, do not offer specific help but offer help in any way that person needs to be helped.
This is advice that I need to take from myself as well as preach to the rest of you. “If you need anything….” is such an automated response and meaningless in its intent. I may not immediately break the habit of saying those words, but I can immediately put my intent by them in action.
And that’s all I have to say about that…