My Trauma Does Not Make Me Strong
In the spring of 2011, I suffered the most traumatic event of my life.
It was heartwrenching, heartbreaking and filled with so many sensational details that I’m sure made for an exciting story. I’ll be honest enough to say that if it were happening to someone else, I, too, would have relished the story.
As people told and retold the tale, shared their thoughts and basically watched the drama unfold, few people thought of the genuine anguish and grief I was going through as an 18-year-old, witnessing my then-boyfriend succumb to a mental condition.
That period taught me that sometimes, however well-meaning they may be, people generally don’t know what to say in times of trouble and often come out insensitive.
Four years later, I lost 7 family members to a road traffic accident. I watched my sister, who was the most affected in my immediate family, get inundated with meaningless platitudes about how “God needed them more” and “it’ll get better with time”.
In hindsight, when I was told I’d be “stronger” because of what I was going through in 2011, I should have taken it to mean I’ll better understand the needs of those going through grief.
So, for those that have had the good fortune of going through life unscathed (is my envy showing?? Okay, thanks, I’ll hide it), here is a resource I hope will help you the next time you have to be there for a friend or family member going through “stuff”.
What Not To Say
1. “Wow, and I thought I had problems”. This is such an insensitive thing to say. And it happens when one bases the extent of their blessings on the misfortune of others, i.e. “not everyone woke up today; hence I’m blessed”. I do not subscribe to that kind of toxic positivity, and neither should you, dear reader! If you’re enjoying a good streak in life, enjoy it all the way through, praise your chosen deity and be grateful, but please don’t reduce others problems to mere footnotes in the Story Of Your Life.
2. “God gives his battles to his strongest soldiers”. - No! He does not! Stop Lying! Also, does that mean if people were weaker, then they wouldn’t suffer through anything? Okay, sound logic. Not!
3. “It’ll get better with time”. - Nothing gets better just with time alone. It gets better with crying through things, therapy, taking steps to heal and committing to moving on. However, amid all the troubles, this is not what the aggrieved might want to hear.
4. “You inspire me”. - Imagine finding inspiration in other people’s pain. How weird. Suffering is not an ennobling thing, it just hurts, and the hurt person is certainly not interested in inspiring others. At least not at that moment.
5. “I can’t imagine going through what you’re going through”. - okay, cool. Then don’t!
6. “Everything happens for a reason”. - I’m sure it does. Still, a grieving person is not interested in why this reason involves all this suffering and pain. Aren’t there better ways to arrive at said “reason”???
7. “You’re so strong”. – How do we even measure this strength? By how composed one seems in public? By the fact that they don’t break down at every sentence as they share their story? Personally, when people told me how “strong” I was, I felt patronized and like my grief was expected to play out in a certain way that affirmed my apparent strength.
Wow, this took an angry turn! But that’s just how infuriating it is when one hears these things after suffering a tragedy. No matter how well-intentioned, you cannot make someone feel instantly better with some worn-out phrase that, upon further scrutiny, actually means nothing.
However, I’m not one to just present a problem without solutions. So, here are some practical, sensitive ways to help ease the burden in tough times, from oddly specific instances like mine, to funerals, cancer diagnoses, miscarriages, illnesses and all those things that life throws at us.
1. Ask how you can help - The person might not tell you precisely what they need immediately. Still, if the relationship is solid, they may come back and tell you how you can support them.
2. Give them a hug - There are few things more reassuring than a long hug. If you must follow Covid guidelines (thanks for nothing, Covid), then just sit with them and assure them you’re here for them.
3. Offer practical help - Do they need help to get to the hospital? Picking up kids from school? Getting food? Getting notes from class? Be there for them in such ways, with their permission, of course.
4. Thank the person for sharing whatever they’re going through, and tell them that while you don’t have any wise words to offer, you are there when they need you. (and then actually BE there when needed).
5. Listen - When they share their anguish, don’t “me too” them. Just listen. This is not the time to tell just how bad YOU had it. Let them talk it out, and if they ask for advice, then you may offer it.
6. Check-in - Phone calls may feel intrusive depending on the situation, but a consistent daily (or hourly if you’re codependent like my friends and me) text to let them know they have your support goes a long way.
If you’d like to learn more about how to be there for others in troubling times, please see these other resources below. Unlike me, whose only authority to speak on the matter comes from having gone through some trauma, the people behind these resources are professionals in their field.
I’d like to hear about how you show empathy in times of grief for others. Please let me know in the comments.