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When Sadness Hits a Friend, LISTEN!

May 7, 2018

By Nancy Gold


We have all been there. A friend's husband is seriously sick. A friend is concerned about the results she got from a test at the doctor's. Someone we know is nervous about the trembling of her hands, the fogginess of her mind, that strange pain in her hip, the stitch in her back that will not  go away. How do we respond when we are told?

Are we a minimizer, a teacher or a solver? (credit given to Kate Bowler, an Assistant Professor at Duke Divinity School). Hopefully you are NOT a minimizer, teacher, or solver since if you fall into one of these 3 categories you are the least likely to know what to say. Let's figure out together how to be better than that.
 

The Minimizer

 
The minimizer wants to tell you how you should not be that upset. They start off with comments like, "After all, what do you expect? Your husband is older, he lived a long life." Or, "There are operations for your back" (which is seemingly dismissive).Or, "There are people in Afghanistan who have it worse." When you are on the receiving end of a comment like this, you wonder if the speaker has a heart inside his or her body. How is this kind of comment supposed to help the receiver? Spoiler alert: Comments like these do NOT help. The receiver is emotionally fragile and your comments are "Judgey" and egocentric. Also, dismissive comments meant to minimize someone's pain do not help the person feel truly heard. Don't do this. And for heaven's sake, do not start talking about your own ailments.
 

The Teacher

 
These are the people who feel the need to tell you IN DETAIL how their sister/husband/friend/yoga instructor had the same or similar situation happen to them and how they dealt with it. Often the explanation will end with a malpractice suit, a permanent injury, or a loved one who passed on. When a person is upset, he or she does not want to join the Olympics of sickness and miserable stories. It is not a contest and no one wants to hear a similarly horrible story. There is no comfort in that. Your friend is in a tough place and she just wants a listening ear. Please say "I am sorry you are going through these troubles. My heart goes out to you." And then be quiet.
 

The Solver

 
Please do not start talking about nutritional supplements (most of us already take pills), how positive thinking alone will help, how your sister in law went to a special healing person, or any other long winded story about a complicated multi-step remedy. All you do is burden the receiver since she is probably not going to do what you just suggested. She is politely listening to your solutions but she is hoping that you won't expect her to follow your unsolicited advice. She is probably already following the advice of a team of doctors. Now, do not get me wrong; the answer is never to  give advice to people. Just make sure that if you do, you ask if they want to hear it first. The solver cares less about the feelings of the receiver and more about being able to offer a solution and feel good about helping (not the altruistic act of kindness that you might think you are doing).
 
So with all these "don'ts," what should you do? This is an interactive conversation so we want to hear your thoughts. Send them to NGoldInteractive@gmail.com. We want to hear your solutions.
 
I will share a personal moment, a very caring thing that happened to me recently. I had planned on going on a 4 month vacation but, at the last minute, personal problems ended up making me stay in town. I had put my yoga subscription on hold and was not sure what to do. My yoga teacher and my 5 friends from my yoga class banded together and "comped" me for the 2 weeks that I was in town. I cried tears of happiness. I still get choked up when I remember their kindness. They understood how much I needed the daily break that yoga would give me.
 
From my point of view when sadness hits a friend, listen. Do not lecture. Do not ask probing questions. Do not ask them to justify what the doctor said. Do not criticize. Instead, offer to go to a movie, small event, lecture, museum, with them or something small to get them out of the house. Praise them for being strong, gracious in the face of adversity. Above all, lend a compassionate ear. Keep your comments short and focused on how the other person feels.
 
Sometimes the person may not want to talk at all. Respect that. No one is totally focused on their challenges and problems all of the time. Grant them a respite from having to update. Understand that all they may want to do is to send one group email sharing what they feel comfortable sharing at the moment. Do not ask them to give you one - on-one more personal details. It is not about you. It is about them.
 
Let's remember that we may be well-intentioned but we need to be more concerned if our comments will be well received.
 
My favorite piece of advice came from a dear friend of mine. She said go into the elevator, press lobby. When you are between floors , yell F$#K! Sometimes that is the only solution to life's unfairness. made me laugh. Worked for me.
 
Now it is your turn. Tell us your story. Were you the receiver of well-intended comments? Which ones did you like best? What did not sit well with you? What do you wish had happened? Again, when I publish the answers I promise to use only your initials.
 
OPINIONS, PLEASE! Please email me at NGoldInteractive@gmail.com. In advance, thank you for your thoughts. Let's continue the conversation.