Do No Harm to Those You Love

Do No Harm to Those You Love

In my work, I have witnessed many beautiful words of consolation and comfort gone awry.

“Please don’t say ‘everything will be OK’.” - Graham Franciose

“Well, it’s better that this happened now, rather than having a baby born with all sorts of medical problems.”

My face flushed. I jerked the phone away from my ear and stared at it. I had to catch my breath for a few moments.

I had just shared the news that my 10-week pregnancy would not go forward because the fetus was “not viable.” My well-meaning friend had listened to my sorrow and disappointment. But then, for whatever reason—fatigue from the intensity of the sadness, needing to wrap up the conversation but wanting to end on a cheerier note—she moved on to interpret what had happened to me and find the silver lining. That’s when the help of the conversation went to harm.

“No!” I exclaimed. “What’s better is that I could have this pregnancy go forward and have a healthy baby. There is no ‘better’ about this happening.”

By this time I had served as both a hospital chaplain and a church minister, and I knew that sometimes attempts to comfort others inadvertently add insult to injury. I knew that, on top of initial sadness or fear, unskillful “comforting” words can bring feelings of being misunderstood, judged, or lectured to. I also knew that I needed to forgive my friend for her inadvertently jarring statement, just as other friends have needed to forgive me when my words were an unhelpful pile-on. I hold on to this memory to remind myself how it feels to be on the receiving end of words that are more harmful than helpful. I try to practice and teach this awareness in my work—to remember that simply listening and reflecting what we hear a person say to us is the best response to their pain or frustration.

Inevitably, we will say things that sting or unsettle or dismiss when we mean to comfort. We can apologize. Listen again. Keep showing up. Hold space.

We learn this from our own personal experience. Once we have decided to talk about a hard situation, we can quickly regret sharing. A sign that we may not have selected a good listener? As soon as we finish speaking, the other person speaks. No silence. No pause to let our words sink in, to just be with us in the intensity of our feelings. Right away, there are words and suggestions. You may have been told some of them:

“Everything happens for a reason.” 

“I’m sure it will all work out.”

“If I were you, I would . . .”

“I had a cousin who went through something like this.” 

“I bet they didn’t mean it.”

“You probably misunderstood.”

“It’s not so bad.”

In religious circles, “God” is often brought in to the words of comfort. As in, “God has a plan” Or, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Or, “I know you are sad to lose him, but he is with God now.”

Usually, when we are talking about our hurt or rage or disappointment, we seek the confirmation that another person understands us. We are comforted by someone who is standing with us in the muck for a moment, so we are less alone in it. In my work, I have witnessed many people try to comfort one another. I have witnessed beautiful words of consolation and comfort gone awry. I have offered both kinds myself.

Words of consolation that are more harmful than helpful seem to fall into two categories:

Interpretation: “Here is how I interpret what you are feeling, or should be feeling or doing about the situation.”

Storytelling: “Here is the story that comes up in my mind as a result of what you just shared.”

Rather than stay with the feeling a person expresses and reflect how bad it is, or articulate how sorry we are, we shield ourselves with interpretation and storytelling. Such distancing is perceived by the person we are trying to comfort. 

Many of us, even when we know better, still do the harmful things. I am most likely to say something unskillful when I am tired. Generally, when I am feeling fatigued, or tired of a repetitive conversation, or bored, or done with listening, there is a greater tendency to use a wrap-up-the-conversation phrase that can seem dismissive. “Well, in time things will work out.” Such trite expressions are common, and I can fall back on them. It takes more energy to speak the truer response. For instance, “I need to go soon, so I have to end our time together. I’m so sorry for all you are going through. This is really hard.”

There are two ways to think about how to be the listeners that this world is aching for. One way is to consider the Hippocratic Oath: As best we can, do no harm. We refrain from interpretation or storytelling when we are listening to the raw, hard emotions that another speaks. 

The other way is to imagine we hold a space fore each other. "Through listening we hold space for each other," writes AMy Wright Glenn in her wonderful book, Holding Space: On Loving, Dying, and Letting Go. Our listening can help to hold space for someone when their world is caving in.

We hold space imperfectly. A motivation for our harmful words comes from feeling that we want to give to someone more than we can give. Our listening seems, and can be, insufficient and unsatisfying. We crumple as we listen to the hopelessness, the irreplaceable loss, the illness beyond repair. We face breaches that may never be repaired. When we try to find the “positive” perspective, we are addressing our own insecurity and powerlessness. The person we are comforting understandably thinks we are speaking to them. Over time, our holding space may allow the person to claim the “positive” perspective for themselves.  Or, not. It’s not up to us. 

Recently, I brought communion to a parishioner who has been unable to come to church for a long while. After a lengthy time together in which I witnessed the struggles, stayed present to the challenges, and reflected what I heard, I regressed. As I was walking out the door, I said to the person, “I hope that soon you will be able to come to church again.” The person called me on it, replying: “I’ll just stay in the present moment.” 

Inevitably, we will say things that sting or unsettle or dismiss when we mean to comfort. We can apologize. Listen again. Keep showing up. Hold space. Often, listening will not feel like enough in the face of another’s loss. But it is a gift we give.

My Southern friend likes to say, “You picking up what I’m putting down?” I usually reply, “I’m picking up what you’re putting down.” Sometimes, the best we can say is, “I’m trying,” and remember the Hippocratic Oath.

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