Many of us feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped when others express negative emotions like regret and sadness. Oftentimes we feel it is our job to cheer them up to make them feel better.
Ironically, most pep talks have the opposite effect, making them feel worse. When we try to talk people out of their feelings, they feel unheard and all alone.
The person expressing the sadness, grief or confusion wants the listener to show they care by listening. They don’t want someone to advise, or fix, or try to make them feel better – though ultimately they will, if they feel heard.
I saw this firsthand while a hospice chaplain intern, visiting a woman who was bedbound with little time left. She commented one day that she was sad because she missed her husband who had died years before. A friend in the room immediately tried to cheer her up by saying, “Oh, but you have a great family who loves you.”
The woman knew this, but in that moment, what she wanted to talk about was her husband. As soon as the friend left the room, I said to her, “Tell me about your husband.” She smiled faintly and then stories poured out.
Another mistake we can make in the face of the pain of others is to worry that we won’t have the right thing to say and so decide to say nothing, which is the worst thing we can do. The hurting person is left to assume that we don’t care.
It is always better to acknowledge the person’s difficulty and say, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” and follow it up with some tangible action.
When we lost our 10-day-old son, Sam, someone mowed our yard, a neighbor got library books for us to read to our 2-year-old, our mailbox overflowed with cards, people re-arranged their schedules and took off work to attend the funeral, someone organized a group so that we received two meals a week for months after that and more.
When my dad was battling pancreatic cancer, two neighbors made a snowman outside his bedroom window. A couple in their neighborhood that they hardly knew brought a meal once a week. Men from his Sunday school class took him to breakfast when he felt like it, and told them they loved him – something he never expected to hear from other 70-year-old men.
That it meant a great deal to him was evident by the tears in his eyes when he told me. My dad lost his battle and sadly didn’t get to use what he had learned about how to show love and support.
Though these losses were painful and hard, I am grateful to have learned early that cards, calls, meals and other expressions of love matter – that simply showing up matters.
Don’t wait to experience an illness or a death yourself; be that thoughtful caring person now. Take an action and be consistent. The person, the family will feel your love and God’s love for them when you do.
Rev. Christine Herrin is the pastor at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton.