Saturday, January 1, 2011

ask, don't tell

(this is from March of last year, but I like it, and I need to read myself again.)

I just came back from meeting a retired minister who has a beautiful farm. She lives near my folks, and has heard what happened. I went to meet her goats. I will admit I had some – expectations. I expected to meet the animals. I expected to be invited to tour the place, to check out the grounds. I expected to maybe be invited in for tea. I expected that, if I brought it up, she would have something wise or comforting to say, something about god and life and love. She did not. I met the goats. We talked for a few minutes. She did not mention god at all, and the only thing she had to say about love is that I will find someone else, that Matt would expect me to, that she has heard my mother talk about him, and she knows what he would want. And she reminded me that the cycle of life goes on. Really? Years as a minister, and this is the best you can do? Tell me I will love someone else, eventually, as though that is my main concern right now? “Oh dear, oh dear, when will I have someone else who is not the man I am actually still in love with, who I watched drown in front of me just 8 months ago?” The best you can do is tell me what someone you have never met would want for me, as though I myself wouldn’t know? I realize I expected her, as a minister, to “know better.” I expected her to be able to stand there with me, even as a nearly complete stranger, and – I don’t know – ask. Ask about god, ask about faith. Ask about love. Wonder with me about how this will unfold, in god’s will. Not give me useless, pandering platitudes about what great things await me “in the future,” and how life will always go on.

WHY is it that so many people feel that the best way to comfort me now is to tell me I will not always feel this way, that I will move on, that Matt would want me to, that I will have someone else, that I should remember the “cycle of life” and realize all is as it should be. Clueless people. Ignorant, stupid, innocent people. The person I planned on spending my life with just died. And the best thing you can come up with is that he is replaceable, and to look at how the daffodils come up. Nice. I am not stupid. I have not suddenly become daft to the knowledge that “life goes on” – oh look – the seasons are changing! Huh, life must go on then. How could I have been so unaware? Why have I been so upset?

This is the recurring theme: Quick! She’s in pain! Let’s talk her out of it. Let’s tell her things will be better someday. Let’s remind her to be grateful for what she had. Let’s tell her how smart and funny and kind she is. And let’s be sure, because we know it is weighing her down, to reassure her that someone other than the man she loves will eventually be beside her, snoring softly, waking up to kiss her good morning, rolling back over to have five more minutes while she gets up to walk the dog so he can sleep. Great. Bring it on. Thanks so much for your kind words. You’ve really relieved my suffering, with all this trying to talk me out of it.

The people I love, the ones I will go to again and again, are the ones who do not in any way try to “solve” this for me, or fix it, or fix me. They do not make any attempt to cheer me up, or shame me into feeling thankful that I had as much love as I did, and so should be happy with that. They do not tell me things will be better “later,” and that I have so much to live for. They do not remind me I am part of the cycle of life. Pandering, condescending crap. I know. I know you do not know what to say, and you are fumbling, and trying to be helpful. You hope against hope, inside your own hearts and minds that I will actually “be happy” again, that I will “find someone else,” that I will “recover,” because then there is hope for you. Then you have evidence that you would survive this if it ever happened to you. Oh look – love survives. It’s okay. Everything will be okay.

Please. Please stop it. I know pain is hard to witness and hard to tolerate. Please stop telling me what you think I should hear. Please stop telling me about later, stop telling me about my glorious future, that Matt expects and wants me to have. Please stop pointing out how life goes on. Stop. I am here. Now. Do not tell me about “later.” That completely ignores my “now.” What happens or does not happen “later” is irrelevant. Stop assuming you know what my deepest fears are; stop trying to calm those assumed fears for me. Stop telling me, as though you have the answers, as though there are any answers. Please. Stop telling me. Ask first. And I don’t mean “ask me what I need.” I mean – ask. Ask what this is like for me, ask before you make an assumption about what is real for me. Ask before you jump right in with your solutions to things that are not problems for me. Or, simply stand here, right here, in this present moment, not telling me how much better it will be later. You can’t make this better by trying to take the present away from me. If you must say something, you could wonder with me, about god, about love, about life. Wonder is good.

I am so disappointed in the goat-raising minister. Not her fault, really. She has not walked this road. She has no idea. I do resent the “I know better than you” condescension, but I’m sure she didn’t hear herself that way. No one actually thinks they are being clueless – that is the definition of it, clueless. I am trying to be kinder to people who have good intentions, to be more understanding of them, instead of railing against them in my mind (and sometimes on paper). It is not her job, even as a farming, goat-raising minister, to live up to my expectations. But I am disappointed. I guess I expected her to wonder with me, without thinking she knew the answers. I expected her to ask - How do any of us live in this life that can change so quickly, without any warning at all? How do we move with all the love that is here, that is inside us, that is still present, even though the form has changed? How do we continue to be the person they love, the people we knew ourselves to be, in this new form, this new life? What kind of beautiful form can this take, this love we know?

There aren’t answers to these things. But asking the questions, rhetorical as they may be, is infinitely more helpful, more healing, then anything someone can tell me. Just being with now is infinitely more respectful, loving, and kind than anything you can tell me about what you think I should do, or how you think I should feel, or what you imagine my future to be. I live in my life, I am far more intimate with its contours than you, and even I don’t know what will unfold. You are most helpful when you stand with me, without changing it, without fixing it, without making assumptions. It is okay to not have any answers. Please. Ask, don’t tell. Be clueless with me. Wonder is a very good thing.


  1. This is an excellent post.

    Do not tell me about “later.” That completely ignores my “now.”

    This bothers me too. My closest friend, who has gone through a lot of physical trauma of his own (cancer, a chronic lung disease, bones falling apart from steroids for lung disease,etc...) just says about my life, "It's all f*cked." I appreciate that he can see things from my point of view. He has also told me about a man in his town - a grief counsellor - whose wife just died of cancer last year. He has said, "I thought I was giving people great advice and now I realize I didn't know sh*t about grief. I feel like such an ass."
    I have never linked to this from my blog as I guess it might be hurtful to some people, but here is a poem I wrote about how it feels to be me. I suppose it sounds sort of angry, but that's how I have felt many times since Don's death. Btw, there's a voice recording I made for to go with it. It appeared in qarrtsiluni last year.

  2. Loved this then, love it more now. Was outraged then at her clumsy inability to "lead, follow, or get out of the way", and yep, still outraged.

    Love survives. But not the way she thinks.

  3. thanks, bev. I was a counselor before this too. Since, I feel like everything I have ever said to clients was utter crap. Suitable to the time, and it seemed to help them, but hearing myself in my memory - Complete Crap.
    Do you know the book Thinner? I read it when I was an early teen, so I might be misremembering, but sometimes I would like a power similar to the gyspy woman. Your poem reminds me of that. To touch someone and whisper "thinner" - to very quietly whisper "feel this."

    C - I love it more now too. I feel like I was "better" earlier on.

  4. megan - I don't know the book "Thinner" but I should probably look it us. That's what I was hoping for when I wrote the poem -- yes, "feel this" as I feel, and maybe you will come to understand.

  5. That's it. Exactly. Can I share it on FB?

    Mind you, last time I shared someone's writing about What It's Really Like, I got a response akin to "get yourself some help"
    ....which is ironic, because I AM getting myself some professional help ... and my psych agrees that there is no "fix". That grief has to be lived through and the tears and rage need to come out. That I got a shitty deal in being widowed so young and I have a right to feel angry and sad and mad.
    I hate how people assume that I can just "get help" which will make all the sadness go away and life will be all puppies and butterflies.
    Grief isn't pretty and other people can't stand it, even for a millisecond.

  6. I just spent a night with a friend where this was her reaction to any or my attempts to share my thoughts/feelings etc. She was just trying to ease her discomfort. Talking about this doesn't make us uncomfortable, we live it. It is the people who don't live it who can't bear it.

    It is frustrating and makes isolation seem easier and more worthwhile.

  7. A - yes ma'am, please share. As a person who used to be one of those people to whom one would GO for "help," I can solidly say that professional help does nothing to fix. At its best, it validates the pure, sheer suckage that is.

    Widowedoewl - yeah - isolation, just not talking to anyone, does seem easier. Hard enough to actually live what we are living, without then also having to defend it.

  8. That is it in a nutshell. Hard enough to live it, let alone be told we should be doing better. If we could only be happy, then we would be happy. Gah. Thanks for nothing, people.
    What did we grievers ever do before there was all this online validation? You all are truly my lifeline.

  9. Thanks for re-posting this, it's priceless. I want to memorize your last lines like poetry and hope they grow in my heart."You are most helpful when you stand with me, without changing it, without fixing it, without making assumptions. It is okay to not have any answers. Please. Ask, don’t tell. Be clueless with me. Wonder is a very good thing."

  10. Love this post, I've been feeling this a lot lately. I try to brush people off knowing they have 'good intentions' but there are days when I want to slap people for the things they think are helpful. I hate when people tell me to be thankful for what I had/have and tell me how blessed I am. It completely dismisses my "now."

    Thank you for posting.

  11. great post true. The dearest, truest friends are those who can sit with you in the darkness and tears. I thought I had many friends I know the ones that love me enough to let me hurt and just say they are sorry...