What do you say when you don’t know what to say?

January 30, 2021

By Ken Barringer

One of the first things I learned in grief counseling was to make tissues available but not actively hand them to clients who may be teary. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense and doesn’t feel all that caring or polite. However, upon further look maybe it is. As it was explained to me; you rushing to get your client a tissue feels more about you then it is about them. It’s like saying you can’t tolerate their emotionality. Make the tissues available and near to them so they can access them when needed. Sit peacefully with them. That is holding their pain with them and is compassionate. However, the silence and uncertainty of knowing how the bereaved are doing can get very uncomfortable and we become tempted to fill the space with words, often responding to an emotional experience with logic. We might rely on scripts we have heard such as “You’ll get through this” or “Things will get better over time”. Grievers have shared that when they hear these statements they feel silenced. I believe those friends, family members and acquaintances who use scripts this have best of intentions and care about us. However, a gap between intention and reception of the message is created.

Having difficulty sitting with another person’s emotionality seems to speak to the larger issue of how we as a society manage and embrace uncertainty. There is nothing like grief and loss – whether it’s a person, job loss or losses associate with the pandemic – to trigger not knowing what to do or say. When faced with the unknown we have been conditioned to react rather than act. We are subtly encouraged to move things forward at any cost rather than sit with the feelings of inconclusiveness. A recent article in The Boston Globe reflects the benefits of uncertainty and how uncertainty is actually helpful in inspiring creative thinking.

Historically we have been socialized to behave in ways that demonstrate we have things under control. This is the opposite of uncertainty. Thus, when having to embrace unpredictability or discomfort we might meet this challenge with distraction, avoidance or simply not allowing it (has anyone ever greeted you with a version of “How are you? Good”). After all, marketing people lead us to believe the “good life” is filled with pleasure. Discomfort and ambiguity are not related to pleasure (even though we have to embrace those in order to truly enjoy pleasure). What steps can we take to begin to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable?

It seems appropriate to exam a quote from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “Our thoughts and feelings flow like a river. If we try to stop the flow of a river, we will meet the resistance of the water. It is better to flow with it, and then we may be able to guide it in ways that we want it to go.” Little steps, rather than giant leaps can lead us to feeling comfortable with that which cannot be predicted. This may be a springboard to sitting caringly with someone else’s distress.