New from Viva Editions, When Bad Things Happen to Good Women is a guide to dealing with all of life’s tragedies, from losing a job, to house destruction from natural disasters, or deaths in the family. Carole Brody Fleet, an expert on grief and the author of two previous books, explains the best way to deal with over 40 common situations, and also tells you how to comfort those around you who may be experiencing these events.
Beginning a book of this sort with a chapter intended for people not directly affected by a bad thing is kind of like trying to frost a cake that has not been baked—you just don’t do it that way. However, I also believe that the more urgent a message, the sooner it needs to be heard. So as I am wont to do, I am breaking from convention by beginning with a chapter dedicated to the people who surround the “warriors”; the survivors of bad things…loss, life-challenges, adversity and situations that we all dread ever having to face.
We begin with the “Don’ts”:
The Biggest “Don’t-Say”
The absolute, no-doubt-about-it, definitive, number-one thing that you should never say to anyone who has just shared any kind of bad-thing news with you is:
“I know how you feel”
(also occasionally disguised as “I know what you’re going through”)
Little does more harm to a person in need of compassion, sympathy or actual support and help than hearing “I know how you feel” or “I know what you’re going through” from the people around them. A seemingly innocuous phrase, and commonly used in an attempt to relate to the pain of another person, this sentiment has the capacity to create very hard feelings. No one knows how someone else feels, and to say otherwise is presumptuous at best and can be devastatingly hurtful at worst.
Let’s explore the reasons why this phrase needs to be immediately eliminated from our sympathy lingo and blasted off of the planet (along with phrases like, “Aren’t you over it yet?” and “Everything happens for a reason,” both of which you will see recurring many times throughout this book).
Reason # 1
It is not your turn. Leave the spotlight where it belongs.
I have spent many years in service to the bereaved. I have written about, been interviewed regarding and spoken about a wide variety of loss and life-challenge experiences at great length. The stories that I have heard are countless. Moreover, when it comes to loss and life-challenge, I unfortunately also have a great deal of personal insight and experience (that includes widowhood); far too much overall for my liking.
It might then surprise you to learn that not once have I ever looked at anyone who shares their story of loss or challenge and responded with, “I know how you feel.”
Regardless of whatever news has just been shared, whether you have been through the same or similar experience or not, the minute you say, “I know how you feel,” you will inevitably follow those words with, “because I…” and then you are then likely to fill in the blank with your own tale(s) of woe. There is then an unspoken and automatic shift in the focus of the conversation and the person who has just come to you in need of sympathy, compassion, advice or perhaps just a shoulder to lean on is now being forced to focus on your story, your feelings and how you were affected by your situation. Whether intended or not, the emphasis is now on you and at this particular moment in time, the emphasis is misplaced. It is not about you right now. The focus needs to remain on the person who has opened a conversation with bad-thing news and is looking to you for compassion and reassurance. They should not have to be in the position of consoling you. Leave the spot-light where it belongs—on the person in immediate need.
Most of us have experienced at least one traumatic or challenging situation in our lives. While you may think that you are compassionately empathizing with someone by letting them know that you have had what you perceive to be a similar experience, what you may be unintentionally doing is trivializing their loss experience by making impossible comparisons. For example, imagine the horror of a mother who had recently lost her young child and in the guise of consolation, was told, “I know exactly how you feel because that’s how I felt when my [105-year-old] great-aunt died.” While the loss of a 105-year-old great-aunt is sad and the loss should be mourned, this is not only a violation of the spotlight-shifting rule, you cannot and should not compare loss experiences—particularly those that are simply incomparable.
You are you
As stated earlier, I will never, ever look another widow in the eye and say, “I know how you feel,” even if that widow lost her husband to the same illness as the one that claimed my husband’s life. I will never look at someone who has lost their father and say, “I know how you feel,” even if they lost their father. You really can’t compare apples to oranges (…or one situation to another situation)to cancer mere months after they lost their husband, as I did. I will never look at someone who had to euthanize a beloved pet and say, “I know how you feel,” even though, like so many, I too have taken part in this very sad good- bye process with our own furry family members. I have had every single one of these experiences (and then some), yet I refuse to utter that phrase. Why?
Because I am not the other person who is sharing their life challenge or loss experience. I am me. I am individual. I am unique.
(…And the world breathes a collective sigh of relief.)
If I am unique, it then follows that everything surrounding my experiences is unique. Even if I have lost a loved one, a job, a relationship or anything else in what appears to be the exact same manner as another person, the fact is that my circumstances, the people who surround me, my reactions and my relationships to what has been lost or challenged are each unique. So how can anyone else know how I feel? How can I know how someone else feels during their time of loss, when their own loss experience is unique and individual to them?