My son was growing beautifully, safely tucked away in the depths of my womb. Well, safely is probably not the most accurate word to use. At around my sixth month of pregnancy, the sonogram technician detected something abnormal. Now that’s a word that no expecting parent ever wants to hear. Needless to say, after sending us immediately to a pediatric cardiologist for a closer look, my tiny and perfect baby was diagnosed with TGA (Transposition of the Great Arteries). To simply sum that up, that’s when the major arteries to the heart are flip-flopped in their position. The end result would mean that the heart would not be able to pump out oxygen-rich blood to the body, and hence my boy would not be able to breathe once he was no longer sheltered inside of me. A beautifully easy labor was quickly overshadowed by the nurses scurrying him away without having the chance to even hold him, feel his skin or kiss his little toes. It was time to stabilize him and get him ready for surgery. We had learned of an amazing surgeon, a god in this field, with an averaged 99 percent success rate. And this is where the true point of this article begins.
At some point in each of our lives there comes a time when we will need to provide some type of understanding or sympathy for someone else, be it a friend or a coworker. For many, this can be an uncomfortable situation since they find themselves at a loss for words. Admit it. Have you not ever had to buy a sympathy card and felt the need to write more than just the cheesy generic words that are already factory printed but you have no idea what to say? You know it’s necessary to say more than just sign that card. So you Google search, “what to write in a (fill in the blank)”. There seems to be a boatload of folks out there needing some guidance since “in a sympathy card” is the second most searched option. (wedding card was the most searched which only means we seem to live amongst a generation of people who can’t come up with an original thought even on happy occasions). You scroll through what just may be hundreds of suggestions then pass one off as your own thought, or at least some version of it. Don’t feel bad. Join me please in this over populated prison cell for the Hallmark plagiarist, I’ve saved you a seat.
But when faced with someone ‘real time”, in person, face to face, many crutch on to the ever so reliable “It’s okay, everything is going to be fine”.
The news of my son’s upcoming surgery was now common knowledge amid many, which left us exposed to a bombardment of the “It’s okay”; “He’ll be okay”; “You have a great surgeon, it’s all going to be okay”. In tandem came the infamous rub on the back; the sympathetic squeeze of the shoulder; or the nervous raise of the eyebrows with a combo tilt and nod of the head as they blurted out the words they thought were the most comforting. Unfortunately, I may not have been the kindest person nor was I receptive to this type of consolation. “What makes any of this okay?”; “How do you know it’s going to be okay?”; “There are parents out there that landed into that one percent and their child did NOT make it! What makes us any different or any more special?”; “I could be that hopeful mom in the waiting room eventually down on bended knees crying after hearing the doctor tell her that her son didn’t make it out of surgery because his little heart was too weak”. Two years have passed since that surgery and thankfully, yes, all turned out great. My tiniest one is doing well.
Life experience has definitely slapped some sense into me. It has enabled me to feel what it may be like to walk in someone else’s shoes/boots/heels, you name it. I’ve definitely become a lot more empathetic. But as is my nature, even my empathy comes with a controlled amount of emotion and gets balanced with logic. And it’s this mix of emotional logic, or better yet, logical emotion that curbs my words even if someone else’s plight makes ME uncomfortable.
Empathy involves not just compassion and warmth, but its main attribute is recognition, comprehension, having insight, being on the same wavelength.
Simply put, if your friend tells you that they were up all night with a sick child, your response stating that little junior will be fine does nothing by means of empathy. I promise you that telling her “You must be exhausted, I don’t know how you do it” shows more understanding than brushing off her concerns with a happy, life is great, all is good in the world comment. Your neighbor happens to vent how he’s distraught that his young 19-year-old daughter just announced her pregnancy. Making light of the subject by joking how he’s about to be a grandfather won’t help the situation. But acknowledging his plight with “I’m sure as a dad you envisioned it differently for your baby since we already know how difficult it is to raise a family especially when you’re that young” will help validate his feelings entirely. Your teenage kid finally breaks down and lets you in on their agonizing over getting dumped by their true love. “You’re young, you’ll be fine. It’s a rite of passage. Years from now you’ll know what true love really is”. Wrong answer. Are you kidding me? Your kid finally lets you in and you reduce their feelings to such a dismissive basic reply? How about acknowledging the pain, and digging deep to find the memory of losing your own first love back in the day?
True sympathetic words should never have to fit more into your own comfort zone than the person that needs the comfort. As the listener you have been granted the opportunity to make a difference in the life of the news bearer, even if for just a few minutes. As the listener, as the friend, as the family member, as the one graced to receive the news, this is your moment to show true camaraderie. Don’t mess this one up. Don’t tell someone who says they are worried to not worry. Don’t tell someone who says they are scared that there is no reason to be scared. Don’t tell someone who expresses sadness to not feel sad. Point blank, just don’t tell someone how to feel. Those comments are not comforting. They’re a cop-out, a way to dodge the emotional bullet. Take stock of how you can be a true shoulder to cry on, a true listening ear, an actual “I’m here for you”, a person that can relate. Do your research. Practice, practice, practice. Remember, it truly is okay that not everything is okay.