Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Say Anything..

(And if your mind just went to John Cusak standing on the street holding up a boom box, you are OLD, like me...)

And, if you're OLD like me, then you have come to realize that life is not all roses and rainbows, and unicorns, and 100% happy, carefree, and stressless.  If you're like me, you've experienced some of life's speed bumps, and witnessed your friends going through speed bumps too.

But these moments, in addition to the deep emotional pulls that they can be for us as individuals, can often be awkward for friends.  What do you say? What do you do? How do you respond? What do they want?

I read a lot of advice columnists - I like the study of people - and often people write about how their friends disappear during a crisis. 

A week or so ago, a tweet was posted by someone about how they will never again say "Big hugs!" to a friend because someone else had just done it to them and they found it so patronizing.  To which I joked back because it is often a standard I use.

Because what do you say when someone you know, particularly someone who is at a distance, is going through a hard time?

Recently a co-worker's mother passed.  Before she passed, though, she had been in and out of the hospital and in and out of hospice and all the "fun" stuff that often precedes passing.  And my co-worker / friend had been in and out of work helping to care for her and being with her.  When she returned from work after a particularly long absence I found myself in this awkward position.  What do I say to her? I want to ask how her mother's doing, and how she's doing.  But I know that being at work is probably a relief for her, at the moment, to think about something else.  And probably if one more person brings it up, if I were her, she'd snap. 

So, several days after she returned, I had just that conversation with her.  I asked her how her mother was doing, and explained why I hadn't wanted to ask before.  She thanked me, and fortunately, my timing was such that her mother had actually improved at that point, so it was not as unpleasant a topic for her. 

But we often get stymied at situations where people we know - or are getting to know, or even barely know - are going through hard times.  What do we say?

My natural inclination in almost any situation is that I am a helper.  Carrying a big box, and need the door opened? I'm rushing ahead of you to open it, and if not too awkward, helping pick up the other end of the box.  While I know my church would run just fine without me (in other words, I don't kid myself that I am essential), I have become quite the master of ceremonies behind the scenes with everything from preparing church bulletins to scheduling assistants, making announcements, calming squirmy kids without parents in the pews and dressing acolytes.  I like to be helpful.  As a youngster in school, I was the go to person for the sound system - even being pulled out of class to help with something in one of the younger classes.  I volunteered to meet people and make friends.  It really is an expression of my shyness, at some level, because I'd rather be doing something than sitting around awkwardly doing nothing.

So it's really really hard to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.  But often that is all we can do. 

I find myself often chomping at the bit, so to speak, because I want to be able to do more.  I want to be able to wave a magic wand, and have the situation resolve itself peacefully.  I want the person in pain to find peace.  But from a distance, all I can give are words.

And they feel so inadequate on this end, sometimes.

But I gotta tell you.  Having been on the other end, they mean more than you think.  And the great thing is, that if you truly care about someone, it doesn't matter what the words are that you say, because if you express yourself sincerely, that is what comes out, and that is what they feel. 

But do say something.  Even if it's "I don't know what to say, but I care about you." 

My friend "Robin" has read way more than her share of e-mails in the last six months of my angst over a particular situation.  There isn't anything to say.  I'm grieving, and grief is, well, grief.  It's a process. There are no easy answers, no solutions, no particular advice that I need (and sometimes all I'll write to her is "P.S. I miss her"). And sometimes all she sends back is :(.

And sometimes, that is all I need.  Another recent friend wrote me yesterday about a situation about something related in her life, and then followed up with "I don't know if that helps. I'm not good at these kinds of discussions. I never know what to say!"  And what she wrote was wonderful - it helps to relate to each other - and even if all that she wrote were these last three sentences, it would have been just fine, too. 

We don't want to feel alone. And maybe something you'll say will be idiotic.  I've read a lot of advice columnists, and I've read people's reactions and, in my opinion some over-reactions, to what may have been good-meaning people.  It is a risk.  And maybe you won't get the response you expect or want.  (I've read people upset because they never got a "thank you" for flowers sent as condolences... um, it isn't about YOU!)  But take the risk.  Send someone "big hugs" and risk the snarky reply (it is now a joke between me and this tweep, and at least from ME it isn't seen as 'patronizing'... (I hope?!))

It is easy to withdraw when someone is having a hard time.  It is scary to engage and become involved, even if peripherally.  And it is really hard, sometimes, to know what to say.  But it's okay even just to say that.  "I don't know what to say, but it really sucks you're going through this."

I know that I fall on the great platitudes - which from a distance are often just platitudes: "If you need anything..." (although when close by, people often try to anticipate what you might need, and this is why we have a great tradition of bring casseroles to people in need... it's their way of helping).  Some that may seem like platitudes, but might mean the world, "I'm here if you need a shoulder to cry on, or if you want to talk."  "Big hugs"

SOMETIMES, a joke might help - but you have to tread carefully here.  But a laugh or a distraction from the situation can be also welcome. 

Advice is a tricky thing.  It may be needed and even wanted.  But recognize that most times, there isn't anything that can be done, your advice has already been given, they are too overwhelmed to hear anything at the moment, or your advice will come off as patronizing - as if they don't know what to do.  I struggle and give way too much advice sometimes, I know, because I feel helpless.  But I know from both sides of the conversation, that often advice is not what is being sought.  Pay close attention as to whether it is wanted at that moment, if you go that route, and pay attention to whether it's being appreciated.  Usually, what we want most is just to be comforted and to not feel alone. 

Be careful, too, sharing your own horror stories.  If the horror story you are relating is something they might still have in front of them, it is probably not helpful.  Sharing that you understand what they are going through can be helpful, but be careful with the detail.  You may have accepted something in the situation that they are not yet ready to accept.  I have been cruel, lately, to one friend who keeps telling me the most recent shitty thing that her soon-to-be-ex is doing, and trump her with something really crappy my ex did.  SOMETIMES it is good to let someone know it could be worse, but you have to be careful not to be dismissive of them feeling crappy at their own situation.  I usually use it with a smile on my face meant to amuse her, and with this particular friend, I feel comfortable doing so (we'll see if she tells me after she reads this how much she hates it, but hopefully she won't do it publicly in the comments).  Usually we just end up laughing -as best we can - at how crappy people can be. 

Last night, another friend of mine wrote me a two word text "It's done."  And while I did confirm that she wasn't referring to dinner, I had a good idea what she was talking about.  Two words... does she want to talk about it? Or just letting me know and needs to retreat now? Do I ask specific questions and MAKE her talk about it? Or is she numb?  If I were there, I would just pull her into my arms and hold her and wait for her to let me know what else she needed.  But from 3,000 miles away, I feel helpless.  In the end, I gave her three options:  If she wanted to talk about it, we could.  If she wanted a distraction, I could provide that, too.  And if she wanted me to, I'd just sit there quietly next to her (virtually) and hold her hand. 

But the bottom line is say anything and let them know that you care, and remember that this is about them and not you. 

Any other advice or thoughts from folks who have experienced a hard time and what you want others to do or not to do?  What gesture did someone make to you that you found heartwarming, helpful, supportive?  Please share your stories with those of us who never know what to say...

If you like this, stick around and read other entries.  Hit a few on the right that are favorites, or go to the home page of the blog, and read from beginning to end.  Take a moment to send me some feedback.  Thanks for coming.  Please come back soon. 


  1. I don't have anything helpful to add. I'm the clumsiest person when it comes to stressful situations. I'm compassionate and feel a lot for other people - but I never know how to express it... just one of those tough things for me!

    1. That's exactly the point I wanted to make - thank you for making it concisely. It's tough for most of us. Most of us don't know what to say. But even so, just say anything. (At least that is what I was *trying* to say.. ;) )

      You are not alone. I don't think it's "easy" for anyone... But sometimes we need to remember (me, included) that it isn't about us and our discomfort, but the other person... and hopefully that gives us the nudge we need to say something... anything...

  2. A post script to my Say Anything. Maybe not "anything!"

  3. Thanks for linking to my latest post!

    I have to say that there are a few things that I don't find helpful and actually do find patronizing. I know they aren't meant to be, but it's the way I feel about them. I don't mind "If you need anything..." as long as you REALLY mean it. If you don't mean it, if you'll get mad that what the person needed was to send you seven very long rambling texts about what just set them off, then don't say "If you need anything..." say exactly what you are willing to do. And if you aren't willing to do anything and are just trying to say something, choose something else. Even if it's, "I'm so sorry! I don't know what to say." Just DON'T say what you don't mean.

    I have a friend who always replies to me with "Positive thoughts equal positive results" or "Keep your eye on the prize." He's into sports, if that's not obvious. But I really don't like these comments. They aren't helpful to me. I've heard them a bazillion times. They don't come across as "I really care and want to be there for you". Even though I know this is his way of saying that and trying to get me to be positive and keep moving forward.