There’s a saying about the true nature of people being revealed as the result of a life-altering event.
It’s true: the heightened, intense feelings of such times push everyone to their limits emotionally.
Some people don’t know what to say. Some people say something insensitive.
Such responses are partly a result of a society that does not like to talk about death openly, or honestly discuss anything unpleasant. Far better to change the subject to avoid personal discomfort. An added dimension to this is that discomfort can lead some people to make the issue about themselves.
I was fascinated to find the Silk Ring Theory. The story behind it is this (from the LA Times):
When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favourite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”
“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”
The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”
How did these anecdotes make you feel? If you have suffered a bereavement of someone close, or have experienced a serious illness such comments may feel familiar.
There is a diagram to go with it:
The idea behind the theory is that the person who has suffered the bereavement, or the person experiencing the illness (or whatever the crisis is) is at the centre. All the people in the outer circles offer comfort to the people in the inner circles. The people in the outer circles don’t trouble those in the inner circles with their own distress about the situation.
Put in black and white like that, it seems perfectly simple, doesn’t it? Most of us would like to think that we would do everything possible to help a loved one in crisis in any way we are able to.
Despite that, comments like the ones in the anecdotes above tend to slip out. That doesn’t make them bad people: they probably don’t realise the implication of what they are saying, that they are making it about them. We’ve probably all had a ‘speak first, engage brain’ moment at some point.
The trouble is, when you are in the middle of the crisis, or when the bereavement is fresh and raw it is possible (likely!) you will receive a tongue lashing if you say something insensitive or self-centred. It can strain relationships and cause rifts. You just don’t need that extra stress and upset at such times.
My experience of bereavement, losing my baby son Hugo was that I was distraught, heartbroken, and I felt in shock for several months. Those early months were a matter of survival, doing what I needed to do to get myself through the days. I was not able to take on anyone else’s grief, sorrow, or feelings about what had happened. I was completely self-absorbed (as I had a right to be). The world outside my grief seemed unreal. I needed to be wrapped in love, with no judgements, opinions, or unwarranted advice. I needed people to understand that I was angry – not with anyone in particular, but that I was furious with the world for how bloody unfair it was my son had died.
On the whole, I received wonderful support from those close to me. I am so grateful for that.
Since Hugo died, I have had an iron grip on controlling things in my life. It’s a natural response to my life crashing down around me, events over which I had no control. I fell in to a habit of seeing and talking only to those who didn’t treat me with kid gloves, and would allow me to do what I needed to do without judgement. I would do anything to avoid additional upset or stress.
I read an article a while ago – I can’t remember where it was from so I can’t link to it, but what it said stayed with me. It talked about the loss of relationships – with friends, family members, colleagues etc – after a bereavement, in this case losing a young child. The article’s author – let’s call her Mary – said in their experience, people fell away over a period of time, stopped getting in touch because they didn’t understand Mary wasn’t being unreliable for cancelling plans, not showing up to gatherings, or being rude for not proactively getting in touch. Mary was surviving possibly the worst thing anyone can imagine.
People need to hang in there for those suffering a trauma. Be patient, wait until the fog has lifted, let them know you’re there for them without expecting a response, or anything in return (this is especially important on important days like birthdays and anniversaries). Don’t expect things to return to ‘normal’. While the Marys and Susans and Leighs may return to every day life after a time, they will never be the same again – the experience will leave them forever altered.
Try not to worry about saying the ‘wrong’ thing to those at the centre of the circle. Unless you say something deliberately insensitive, there is no lasting harm done. Remember that your discomfort will last just a few moments, compared to a lifetime of sorrow. If you do get your head bitten off, cut the person some slack, show compassion and empathy (without making it about you!).
Reach out, send comfort towards the centre of the circle, and dump your own problems in the opposite direction.