In 2004 my son suffered a very traumatic burn injury. He was seven at the time. In an instant our family was propelled into an alternate universe. For the next month Bridgeport Hospital’s burn unit would become our new home base. Friends and relatives poured in to help keep us afloat. Calls and letters came not only from people we knew but from strangers as the incident was big news in our small town.
Small town life can be both a blessing and a curse in such times. While the help neighbors and friends offered in the form of meals, lawn care, car pools and more kept us afloat, I found myself reluctant to go anywhere other than the hospital and back as casual interactions with others were frequently draining. Though people were immeasurably kind and generous, I often found when I did venture out that in their attempts to offer consolation, many people unknowingly were doing just the opposite.
On more than one occasion I found myself comforting other parents, many of whom I barely knew, when they could not contain their tears. I was raw and while people meant well, idioms such as “everything happens for a reason” or that “God will get you through this” (we are not religious) or inquiries such as “what do you need?” (take note – people in the state I was in have no idea what they need) were leaving me feeing depleted rather than soothed.
But then there was the woman in the CVS parking lot. Though much of this time in my life remains a blur, fourteen years later I can still vividly recall her words; words I recall less for what they said than for how they made me feel.
I was running a quick errand to the drugstore. I recall hoping I would not run into anyone and sheepishly tried to ensure that by hiding under a baseball cap and sunglasses.
As I exited my car I noticed the woman staring at me but appearing hesitant as if she was not sure it was me. I recognized her right away as the mother of one of my son’s classmates. My son and her child were not friends outside of class but the mom and I had met and had casually interacted a couple of times at various school functions.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said reluctantly walking toward her while subconsciously holding my breath.
She politely said hello, held my gaze for a moment then without emotion firmly remarked, “This sucks.”
I know I was subconsciously holding my breath because for a moment after she said those two words I recall feeling like I could breathe.
“Yes,” I exhaled, sensing I could momentarily let my guard down, “it does suck.”
I don’t recall what, if anything, was said after that, the interaction was brief but indelible.
We often hear it said that the best thing we can do for someone in emotional pain is to simply be with them; to not inject our own feelings of distress, our well-meant guidance or our learned insight but, rather to merely allow them their feelings of discomfort. Until you are on the other side, it’s hard to fully understand how true this is.
I tried to remember this interaction through the years as my kids matured. I knew on some level I had been given a piece of valuable insight. As parents our first instinct when our kids are hurting is to fix the problem; to smooth it over with words of solace, examples from our own experience or to squelch it with a fun activity like a shopping spree. It can be unnerving to simply sit with someone in their sorrow; however, this can at times offers more healing than can any words of wisdom or trips to the mall.
Not that that there isn’t a time and place for trips to the mall and efforts to soothe. In the maelstrom of parenting three children through a bevy of disasters both large and small it has been difficult to gage when to let them sit with their pain and when to step in; particularly as teenagers when it can be hard to differentiate between the normal capriciousness of adolescence and the warning signs of clinical depression.
Plus, invoked too regularly, “this sucks” in response to a child’s distress can all too often come across less like compassion and more like an annoying, inarticulate and cavalier response to a painful situation.
Like I said, it was less the words themselves than the permission to be miserable that resonated. Though I have on a few occasions called upon “this sucks” when I felt helpless in the face of my kid’s distress, (when my younger son was devastated upon not getting into his dream school and when my daughter got her heart broken) the bigger shift was one of perception: that before a child’s – or anyone’s – pain can be soothed or healed, they must first be able to feel the uncomfortable feelings; ideally in the presence of a caring and compassionate adult.
It’s not easy. Emotional distress is uncomfortable; particularly when we haven’t faced what may be lurking from our own histories. It’s so much easier to try to fix it, to redirect it, to smother it or to assign the task to a higher power.
But freedom to feel miserable in a safe environment is as big a gift as is freedom to feel joyful.
We often search desperately for the right thing to do or say when our kids are distressed but sometimes the guidance comes from a more liminal space – the space in between effort and result; or in my case from a parking space at CVS.