Talking to strangers often uncovers sources of wisdom in unexpected places.
It is okay not to be okay. This I have learned from two friends and my significant other who have lost children to terrible diseases in the recent past. I don’t know that anyone can truly “get” the enormity of the grief that comes with losing a child unless one has actually lost a child. However, I believe my friends and partner when they talk about how heavy that grief is at times. It sounds unbearable and yet it must be borne.
People say the most insensitive things to parents who’ve lost children. More often than you’d imagine, people (and I’m willing to bet I’ve been one of them) say things that they intend to be comforting, but which feel like daggers to the heart of a grieving parent. For example, someone told one of my friends that, although it is a terrible thing to lose a child, it would have been worse if she’d lost her husband because then her other daughters wouldn’t have a dad. Evidently, the loss of sister didn’t rank as high on the scale of bad things that happen in that person’s eyes. Attempting to rank the significance of another’s loss is always a bad idea.
My friends have taught me that time does not heal all wounds. In fact, when it comes to losing a child, the opposite may be true. That is, for many parents who’ve lost a child, grief actually intensifies over time. One friend shared that she’d expected her pain to be less acute once the first anniversary of the death of her daughter had passed. That was not the case. On the contrary, as the numbness that set in immediately after her daughter died wore off, the pain became more acute.
If that didn’t already suck enough, others sometimes assume that time has done its healing thing. They may expect the grieving parent to be ready to “move on.” It’s almost like there’s an unwritten statute of limitations about how long a grieving parent can take to settle into a new normal. Whether we like to admit it or not, many people secretly hope that the new normal will relieve others from having to tippy-toe around the discomfort of navigating another’s grief. Such hope, unspoken or not, conscious or not, risks making a grieving parent hide his or her grief, in the interest of others’ comfort. So begins an existence that may feel inauthentic to the person living it.
Sometimes asking how someone is doing is more about the asker than the askee. Maybe we ask because we want the other person to say “I’m okay.” After all, “I’m okay” signals that we don’t have to navigate an encounter with a grieving person. I’m not saying we don’t want our friends to be okay. Of course we do. Let’s be honest though. A friendship, or any relationship for that matter, is much easier when those pesky emotions like grief don’t get in the way of what is easy and comfortable.
My significant other just lost his son. I am seeing what that grief looks like up close. I want it to go away, but I know it is here to stay.
My goal is to resist any self-serving urge to try and move him into a “better” space where grief isn’t as visible and life is more fun. I know that a grieving person might not even be able to imagine such a space, let alone go there when invited. It’s important that I learn to be okay with his not-okayness.
This is new terrain for me. It’s hard to resist repeating the scripts that are supposed to make others feel better. They may work in some instances, but they have no impact on the pain of a grieving parent. When it comes to a parent’s grief over the loss of a child, nothing can or will fix what isn’t okay. Not now and not ever. That sucks.
I suspect there is a love language in which to communicate with grieving parents. I’m trying to learn what that language is and how to speak it. I know I’m going to fail often in my attempts. I’m going to try anyway. When you love someone, that’s just what you do.
There is no point in pursuing happiness. That is, there’s no point in doing stuff that you think will one day lead to being happy. I can almost hear you thinking, “wow, this one’s going to be a downer. No thanks!” Before you stop reading, stay with me for a minute or two. You’ll be, um, happy you did.
I am a huge fan of Shawn Achor, positivity psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage. His Ted Talk is among the most watched of all time too. Here is a link to it.
In both his book and Ted Talk, Achor draws on research in his field (who knew, by the way, that studying happiness was a thing?) to teach us that there are things we can do daily to increase our levels of happiness. Increasing our happiness, in turn, improves our relationships with others, our productivity at work, and so on. In other words, happiness isn’t a thing one acquires after achieving certain goals or reaching certain milestones. e.g. “I’ll be happy once I make enough to buy a house” or “I’ll be happy once I get that promotion.” Nope. Achor says we’ve got it wrong. It’s the other way around. We don’t become happy once we are successful. We become successful when we are happy.
According to Achor, there are five concrete, simple steps that we can do to increase our levels of happiness. When we do these steps, we increase the likelihood that we’ll achieve our goals, which we once thought would make us happy. Instead, being happy helps us achieve our goals. We had it backwards! Those five things are so easy to do that it almost seems too simple, but the research is tried and true.
For 21 days, which is roughly the amount of time it takes to form a habit, doing the following things each day produces the effects Achor discusses.
When bad things happen to other people, we often say “I just can’t imagine….” Usually, we say this to acknowledge that something bad has happened and to express sympathy or regret. However, the phrase “I just can’t imagine” does neither of those things. In fact, saying “I just can’t imagine” is a bit of a cop-out. Our language needs to align more closely with our intentions. So, instead of saying “I just can’t imagine,” we should say “I can only imagine.”
Whatever our intentions, words speak for themselves. “I just can’t imagine” is code for “I don’t want to imagine what you’re going through.” “I just can’t imagine” is neither kind nor comforting. It allows us to create distance between ourselves and another person’s pain or misfortune. When we claim that we “can’t imagine” what someone else is going through, we protect ourselves. Protecting ourselves does nothing to help a person who is suffering.
Worse, when we say “I just can’t imagine” this or that we are lying. We can imagine anything we want to imagine. We imagine ourselves in others’ shoes every time we read a book or watch tv or a movie. Sometimes we worry about experiences we haven’t had and do not want to have. When we worry, we imagine what it would be like to have those experiences. Anytime we think about what has happened or what is happening to someone, we imagine it.
The truth is, we “can’t not imagine” what has happened to another person when we hear about it. We can, however, choose to stop thinking about it. Choosing not to think too much about what has happened to someone does not mean that we can’t think about it. It definitely does not mean that we shouldn’t think about it.
In my courses on African American literature and culture, I teach students about the history of lynching in the United States. This is a topic around which there exists much cultural amnesia to this day. Among other things, I insist that we try to imagine how white Americans were able to rationalize the terrorism they inflicted on blacks for over sixty years.
For example, why did it make sense to a middle-class white woman to leave church on Sunday, drive to a setting where she, along with her family and members of the community, watched the torture and murder of a black person? Why did it make sense to those present to pose for photographs with what was left of the victim? How could they have enjoyed a picnic after doing what they did and seeing what they saw?
“I just can’t imagine” is not an acceptable response to those questions for many reasons. For instance, the people who performed and saw those atrocities were no different from many of us. That ought to scare us a little. What didn’t they know they didn’t know? What difference would it have made if they had known what they didn’t know? What difference can we make in the world today knowing what we know now? Are we willing to use what we know to make a difference? If so, what kind of difference and how will we go about making it? Saying “I just can’t imagine” does not take us where we need to go in our efforts both to understand others’ experiences and to act as empathic human beings.
Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a 14-year-old boy. Gauge, the son of my former horse shoer, Brad Malone, and his wife Shanna, was killed in an accidental shooting incident. He died in his father’s arms. I have imagined what Brad and Shanna have been feeling and experiencing. I’ve imagined what they must have felt in the minutes and hours and days after they heard the gunshot and found their son. I have imagined what parents do with the dreams and visions they had for their child’s life once he is gone.
I am not a parent. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent and to have that bond that apparently feels like no other. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent who has lost a child, suddenly, or otherwise.
That doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine such things. What it means is that I can only imagine how such loss feels for parents. If I truly care about the people who have suffered such losses, then I will imagine what they have gone through, what they are going through, and what they may go through in the future.
It doesn’t matter if how I imagine someone’s experience isn’t entirely, or even at all, correct. What matters is that, even though I can only imagine, I imagine anyway. What matters is that I don’t cop-out by saying, “I just can’t imagine.”
So, we need to stop saying “I just can’t imagine” for two reasons. First, sometimes people say it because they don’t want to imagine what someone else is going through. If you really don’t care, then drop the act. Second, and I like to think this is the more common scenario, most people say ” I just can’t imagine” when what they really mean is “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”
To admit that we can “only imagine” another’s experience is to say two important things. First, it says “I care enough to try to understand what you’re experiencing.” Second, it says “I acknowledge the likelihood of a gap between what I imagine and your actual experience.” The latter is important because it lessens our risk of imposing our own narrative on someone else’s experience.
If we really care about people as most of us say we do, then we must be willing to imagine what they have gone through or what they are going through. That’s what we call empathy. My friend Michael Cameron defines empathy as “the quality of being able to feel what others feel.” He claims that it affords us “the greatest insight into who [others] are, allowing [us] to find ways to make the greatest impact in their life.” The mission statement of The Empathy Museum (yes, it’s a thing) speaks to the transformative power of empathy: “empathy can not only transform our personal relationships, but also help tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.”
When we imagine what someone else is going through we nurture the development of empathy, which is one of the most valuable human traits. We also nurture one another as human beings and honor one another as fellow travelers on this wonky journey we call life. I can only imagine where we’d be without one another.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.