For the past few months I’ve been trying to help my teenage son cope with the sudden death of his father. I’ve also been dealing with my own emotions, along with some changes in our lives. I suspect that nearly all of you have experienced loss or hardships, so you know what it’s like to be knee-deep in challenges.
During this unsettled season, the garden has blossomed like crazy in spite of just the barest efforts from me. After ten years of moving gravel and hacking at clay clods and digging in compost, this is the year the garden chose to reward us with a most glorious display. I know there is a lesson in there somewhere, or maybe not exactly a lesson but a reminder of the startling beauty and hope that can appear at unexpected times.
The other silver lining is that I feel blessed with some of the most incredibly supportive family and friends on the planet. Our family has been so deeply comforted by the people who have lovingly cared for us. Being on the receiving end of their kindness has filled me with gratitude.
The Different Ways We Try to Help
A tragedy can bring out different reactions in people. Some people can’t cope and disappear, and I understand. Some imagine how they would handle a particular situation, and say things or offer advice in an effort to smooth over the pain. I’ve caught myself doing this in trying to comfort my son. The fact is that I can’t exactly understand his pain because my daddy passed away when I was 46 years old, not thirteen.
In times of trouble, perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of others’ well-meaning-but-misguided suggestions and comments. My experience is that judgment from others in the midst of our grief adds uncertainty and feelings of guilt that are just too heavy to bear.
So I’ve been especially sensitive recently to the moments when I start to judge the actions of others. This is a habit I’m really working hard to break. I am not in someone else’s situation and I have not experienced their particular pain, so I am wholly unqualified to offer anything but empathy.
When a little righteous thought creeps in, I try to shut it right down and offer up a prayer instead. Or I do what Richard suggested to Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, and send thoughts of light and love.
To get out of my own head, I recently explored some other folks’ difficulties from an empathetic perspective.
Please Don’t Judge Me
A new business owner confides to his friend that he is exhausted from working long hours. “You need to delegate more, and stop trying to do everything yourself,” says the friend, who has never tried to start a business. Please don’t judge me, the entrepreneur thinks. You can’t imagine the responsibility I feel for each employee who’s working overtime, how tight our finances are, and the myriad moving parts I’m juggling that simply can’t be managed by anyone else.
A mother takes her mentally challenged son out for a quick cheeseburger. While they’re waiting to order, the boy starts screaming and knocks over a stack of plastic trays. The other patrons, whose children are not mentally challenged, look at her disapprovingly and shake their heads. Please don’t judge me, she thinks as they leave. You have no idea how isolated we feel. You can’t imagine how much I was hoping to successfully pull off this small outing. You don’t know how fiercely I love this boy, and how desperately I want him to have a good life.
A man learns that he has a cancerous tumor and must have his kidney removed. He is afraid, and asks for prayers about the surgery on a Facebook post. “Your attitude directly affects your health, so stay positive!” writes an acquaintance, who has never had cancer. “Remember that God gave you two kidneys!” writes another. Please don’t judge me, he thinks. You can’t imagine facing surgery and chemotherapy while trying to work and support a family. You don’t know what it’s like to look at your children and fear that your time with them may be cut short.
A woman is trying to work up the courage to leave her verbally abusive, unemployed husband. A long-married friend points out that at least he’s not physically abusive, and suggests that she keep working on her marriage for the sake of their children. Please don’t judge me, the woman thinks. You don’t know what I’ve endured, and how different he is behind closed doors. You can’t begin to imagine how scared I am to set this boundary and advocate for my safety and respect.
A couple loses their precious teenage daughter in an automobile accident. A decade later, they still sometimes feel sad and tear up when talking about her. The husband overhears a friend, who has never lost a child, say, “How long is this going to continue? Isn’t it about time they moved on? It’s been ten years.” Please don’t judge us, he thinks. She was our baby girl, and we never even had a chance to say goodbye. Time has lessened our pain, but we still miss her and think about her every single day.
Love is the Answer
Last week I wrote words of gratitude to a dear friend: “You listened to me, you let me cry, you cheered me up, you sent me a great book, you understood my difficult schedule and still made time to meet me for lunch and come over, and I’ve never felt like you had any judgment or criticism or agenda with me.”
Ahhh, what a blessed gift her support has been–and how it has buoyed me. Think of those who supported you at your darkest hour, and I bet they surrounded you similarly with love. When people are hurting and we don’t know how to respond, sometimes the finest thing we have to offer is gentleness and kindness.
As a result of my recent experiences, I hope to pay it forward and get better at giving simple love and solace when others are hurting.
How About You?
Was someone especially helpful and kind to you when you needed it most? What made you feel supported and loved?
Did you receive unsolicited advice, criticism or judgment during a tough time? How did you feel, and how did you respond?
I always love to hear your thoughts and experiences … and I hope your garden is thriving this summer, too.
Hugs and happy June,
Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.