Written by Dan Harren
What do you say to someone that has experienced a great loss? How do you comfort someone who has suffered a catastrophic brain injury? Or the loss of a limb? Or a spinal cord injury?
Henri Nouwen points out, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” The person who is suffering probably already has many people giving advice and counsel, but how many are sitting with him while he delves into his emotional pain? There have been many instances where I have offered advice when it might have been more impactful for me to sit quietly in solidarity. Just this week I found myself giving my thoughts on parenting to a person who is 20 years my senior! This person was telling me of the terrible problems they were having with their teenage son, and I offered my thoughts on the matter as if I were an expert. Now, I cringe just thinking about it.
Letting the person sit in her pain, with you by her side, might be the most important thing you could do. By giving advice, by trying to solve the person’s problems, you lose an opportunity to support the person as they fully experience their pain. Doing this alone might be too hard, too terrifying, too much.
But the question must be asked: Why should one attempt to fully experience their emotional pain? Khalil Gibran writes that “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”. By delving into one’s soul when it is being besieged, one can move forward with clarity, and with a deeper understanding of one’s self.
The problem for the support person is that being there for someone who is experiencing their pain is really, really hard. It’s uncomfortable and painful, and can make the supporter feel helpless. One’s impulse is to try to help, to change the subject, to make the person laugh, to push them forward and away from their thoughts; there is a time for all of this, but first the survivor must feel these difficult emotions, must grieve their loss. And watching the person you love go through this is tough.
But the alternative is worse. We have all met someone who never fully dealt with the loss in their life, or the traumatic event. The person is often closed off, repressed or depressed. Often the person is stuck in that trauma, perhaps for decades, perhaps without knowing it. But the unresolved and ignored emotions are still there, hanging over the survivor’s head, like snow on a bough. Eventually the bough will break.
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.” Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
There are no absolutes in dealing with trauma and everyone deals with their pain differently, to be sure. But simply being there for the traumatized person can be crucial to their healing. When it comes to giving advice and providing suggestions, this may be best left for the survivor’s psychologist or psychiatrist.
When a trauma happens, and is put aside, you can move on; but the traumatized you is left behind. That you is experiencing the trauma over and over again, while the rest of you is trying to avoid feeling those emotions in the your everyday life. So the survivor finds him or herself avoiding situations that might trigger those emotions, thus inadvertently avoiding truly living. Others subconsciously put themselves in situations where they re-traumatize themselves, replaying the same behaviors over and over, as if they were in an endless feedback loop of pain. It’s as if the traumatized you is trying to force you to look inward, at the expense of your present life. Again, after trauma, you can move on; but that traumatized you is left behind, knocking things off the shelf until you take notice.