A few days ago, a friend of mine asked if we could talk. When she called, she made her way through pleasantries as slowly as she could, and I could tell she was trying to build herself up to what she’d say next.
“I can’t have any more children. The doctor told me today.” I felt a weight drop in my stomach. She was the mother of one little girl. She hadn’t been sure if she’d wanted another, but in my gut I knew it didn’t matter. I’ve never wanted children myself but know that I’d have to process the same news with some level of grief. I couldn’t imagine having the choice taken from me before I could make it.
We talked for a while about what happened at the doctor’s office, then moved on to other things. Eventually, she had to go, and I felt as if I should say something, anything, to let her know I heard her, that I cared about the news she had shared with me. What came out instead was me trying to “fix” things.
“You are a wonderful mother to your daughter. And you wouldn’t need to be a mom in order to mother others.”
I know, cringeworthy. If she had been looking for a way to ease the pain, maybe this would have been helpful. But there’s a time for offering solutions and a time for sitting with someone in the wake of bad news. This was made clear as she said “thank you” the way people do when words miss their mark. I sat on my bed afterwards, feeling all wrong.
Why did I do that? Why did I have to say that? What I said was true in a reasonable sense. But it didn’t feel true to say at that moment, because by saying it I was implying that how she felt wasn’t okay, or even allowed.
Then I thought back to a night six years ago. I was feeling low and crying in my best friend’s car. We were parked on a cliff overlooking the city, the lights bright enough to dazzle but not close enough to bring attention to my snot-covered face.
After a few minutes of crying, I asked him with a pitiful sniffle, “Aren’t you going to try to make me feel better?”
He turned to me with kind eyes and asked, “Do you want me to make you feel better?” I thought for a moment. No one had ever asked me that before.
“No. I just want you to sit with me.”
As I continued to cry, he told me about an old girlfriend of his. One night they were watching TV in his living room when she said she was thirsty. He started to get up, and she asked where he was going. He said he was going to get her some water. She said, “Did I ask you to get me water? No. I just want you to sit here and be thirsty with me.”
I liked that story. It made me aware of a right I never knew I had: that it was okay to be sad, and it was okay to ask that no one try to fix it or make me feel better. By knowing that right, I took the responsibility for my pain into my hands instead of asking someone to fix it or help me ignore it.
That night, he told me more stories, and I cried and sometimes laughed. But every moment, I stayed aware of the processing I was doing and how I could feel pain and joy without having to annex one for the sake of another. My friend wasn’t uncomfortable at my sadness, pain, or tears. He let me feel everything. He knew that’s what being fully human is, feeling everything so you can come to understand it, accept that it’s there, and let it pass.
We live in a culture where unhappiness and suffering are to be avoided at all costs with the implication being that you’re living life wrong if you experience them. So naturally, when someone else is experiencing unhappiness, we want to help that person be happy again. We often use this reasoning to justify our response to do, to fix, to end the pain. And let’s face it, we often don’t know how to sit with our own unhappiness, either. It’s easy to ask others how to deal with our feelings to avoid actually dealing with them.
When one of my favorite self-help authors, Glennon Doyle, was at a conference, she was asked by a mother how she could keep her son from pain. Instead of answering, Doyle asked the mother what she wanted her son to be like when he grew up. She answered that she wanted him to be kind, wise, and resilient. “Yes,” Doyle said, “So tell me. What does a human have to confront in life in order to earn those characteristics? Pain!”
She went on to say that it’s not about never having anything to overcome, but overcoming again and again. When we ignore or try to fix pain just to be in a happy state, we are removing an opportunity to learn and grow.
What’s been buried beneath the fear of pain is that pain doesn’t mean a person is broken. Pain is something felt, like anything else in our lives. It means that the body is alerting us. It is providing us with a sad reaction to a sad situation.
Of course, there are times for problem solving and times for being an empathetic listener. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. All it takes is asking someone what they need at that moment. Maybe, like me, they won’t know how to answer that question because they’ve never been asked. But it’s important to remind someone of the right they have to their own feelings.
It can be hard to push through the uncomfortable feeling of not trying to fix a problem or rid a person of their suffering. But if we look beyond that moment of suffering, we can see that pain can be transformed into strength. Having the faith to step back from problem solving can empower a person to do just that.
To me, that is a true act of love: allowing someone you love to be in pain and especially sitting with them in it. It takes great strength and faith to sit with pain, your own and others’. It is something I still have difficulty doing, but it is something I will continue practicing, because I want to be there for the people I love without editing their responses to anything, to give them the space to feel as they are feeling, and to have faith in their ability to overcome.