“I know how you feel.”
Though it was meant to be kind, this phrase was one of the most painful things someone said to me in the wake of my little sister’s suicide.
How could these simple words – on their surface empathetic, not malicious – cause me so much hurt? Should they have even upset me at all? At first I didn’t understand why I was so angry or if my feelings were rational. I just knew that when someone close to me told me, “I know how you feel” without really understanding what I was going through, or making an effort to, my stomach sank. I felt diminished, like my pain and struggle weren’t all that significant. Their words left me invalidated and alone.
After holding the hurt and anger inside for a while (for too long, really), I finally talked to my therapist about it. As it turns out, trying to empathize through assumptions one of the worst things you can do to someone who’s suffering, and it’s unfortunately very common. We search for ways to connect with people and to shape things in a way that makes sense in our own universe. But this can cause much more harm than we intend.
The person who said this to me was coming from a good place. Maybe she was trying to bond with me through a shared experience. The problem is, grief is not really a shared experience. It manifests in everyone differently. Each loss in its full complexity is unique, even if it’s a similar type of loss – that of a child, a marriage, a job, or a spouse. While some losses may look similar on the surface, each one is profound and personal, and needs to be treated as any profound and personal thing should be.
For me, there has been a lot I’ve had to deal with since my sister’s death: breakdowns, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, post-traumatic stress, and all-encompassing sadness. I see a therapist weekly and work hard with my family to hold what remains of us together. I put in extra energy to keep my job, social life, and personal health from sinking. When someone assumes they know what I’m going through, my hard-fought battles are ignored. And these battles are some of the most important things in my life right now.
If I had been asked how I felt, I might have shared that I feel sad, confused, agitated, anxious, scared, and guilty on a regular basis. Then we could have had a conversation about our emotional commonalities, differences, and ways we are handling things. Or I might have just shrugged and said, “I’m doing okay,” as I often do. Which isn’t an invitation to assume; it just means I don’t want to rip the scab off right then and there. But I still appreciate being asked.
But instead, I sat there nodding silently, feeling ashamed for the sullen mood I’d been in all day, as she talked on about her loss that was “the same as mine.” Something important was stolen from me during the conversation: the significance of what I was experiencing.
When we compare and assume, rather than listen, we dilute the other person’s experience. A loss in your life is tremendous. Albeit incredibly painful, it’s still a special and sacred thing. It’s your burden to carry, your pain to dance with, your victories and defeats each day. That should be respected.
After my sister died, a lot of people told me that they didn’t know what to say; that they weren’t sure of what the right words are. That’s okay - I don’t know what the right words are either. You don’t have to search for magic words that will provide comfort to someone suffering, because there really aren’t any. When someone is grieving, all you need to do is:
Listen. Be present. Be open. Don’t assume or compare or suggest. Let them know you love them.