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Thursday, November 29, 2012

If You're Here to Help, You're in the Wrong Place

People, especially people who care about you, always come with the best of intentions. People want to help, they want to make you feel better when you're sick or sad or lonely. And usually that's great. It's awesome to have people around you to help you out, lift you up, or make you smile. But there are times when trying to make someone feel better is the worst thing you could possibly do.

I'm going to tell you a sad story. It's made up of as many pieces and parts as I could gather from different people at different times. If you're familiar with it, skip to the end. If not, I'm going to keep it brief because my hands still shake and my throat burns whenever I think about this. A little more than a week ago three young people set out to drive home for Thanksgiving. One boy and two girls, all over 18. The boy, Taylor, and one of the girls, Bailee, had recently become engaged. Recently meaning earlier that day. They were happy and excited and in love. The other girl, Madie, was Taylor's younger sister, also happy and excited. They were all good people, the kind of people that make you smile when you see them because the light around them seems a little brighter. The word "vibrant" means full of energy and enthusiasm, and if you needed a visual aid, Madie especially was the person to look at.

Blame any grammar or spelling errors on shaky hands and bleary eyes. They were in a car accident. Baliee was largely unhurt. Taylor was badly injured and for a while after it wasn't clear if he was going to survive. Madie's funeral is this Saturday.

Taylor is going to be all right, but he's going to have tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt. He and Bailee are still engaged, and if you want to help these incredible people, you can click the link below and donate to help offset some of the financial costs of this accident.

Morris Family Assistance Fund

I could spend the rest of this blog post talking about Madie, an amazing person and friend and how knowing her even as little as I do made me smile. Every time. I could talk about dealing with grief and how last week I've spent hours in my front yard cleaning, sweeping, and weeding the path in my front yard that she and several other teenagers helped to build just because she helped build it. But I'm not. Instead, I'm going to address the rest of my blog to everyone in the whole world who has ever had to interact with someone who is trying to deal with a loss.

This is how I help. This is how I'm going to do a good deed for everyone everywhere. I'm going to be a jerk and tell you exactly what I think needs to be said. I've had some experience with loss, losing friends, losing important relatives, losing a sister when I was young, and being very afraid that I was losing my mind (not exaggerating- do a google or wikipedia search for some of the more "fun" symptoms of narcolepsy like hypnagogic hallucinations  or sleep paralysis). I was pretty seriously picked on by some of my cousins growing up, and the two people I could count on for unconditional love and protection was my Grandpa Foutz (who was the inspiration for Thane's Grandpa Whitaker, knock knock jokes and all) and my dog Poochie (whose unfortunate name was not my fault.) My Grandpa died on October 10th, 1990 of a heart attack. I remember that because his viewing was held two days later on my 10th birthday. Within that week, we also had to put Poochie to sleep because of his medical issues. This was all after my little sister died, a loss I still feel.

I'm not sharing this for your pity or your sympathy, I'm telling you this so that when you read the rest of this post you will 1) know I'm serious, 2) not be offended, and 3) once again, know I'm serious. Because you, the well meaning person who knew and cared, might be going to say something unbearably stupid and painful to someone you are trying to cheer up. I want to spare both you and that person.

There are lots of platitudes and trite but true phrases that people use to try and bring peace or hope to someone who is grieving. I'll go into a list in a minute, but let me tell you all something up front. SHUT. UP. If you are trying to give someone peace or make them feel better, your intent is noble and your timing is wrong. Being left behind is painful, and nothing you say will make that lessen. People have to hurt first, and trying to take away that hurt (because after all, making someone feel better is doing exactly that) means that you are getting in the way of grief. LET THEM GREIVE. That doesn't mean leave them alone, but it does mean shut up. There isn't anything you can say, because everything is geared towards helping people gain peace and perspective and those come in time but now is not the time. If you must say something, stick to talking about the person you are there to honor and remember. Tell funny stories about them, talk about how they affected you.

But do not, please, under any circumstances, use any of the following phrases. Do not say the person whose funeral this is, is better off. We know this world is a hard, cruel place. This is not the time to remind us how hard and cruel this world can be, and realize also that this phrase, "better off," allows the person to infer that you mean without them. That isn't true. They aren't "better off" without us. They miss us too. At this moment, in this suffering of grief, "better off" is only applicable to someone who had a wasting and terrible illness, or who has lived a very long and very full life and has been waiting to go on. And even then only maybe.

Don't ever say "the sun will still rise tomorrow" or "time heals all wounds" or "just give it time." The last is the best of the three, because it at least doesn't insult the grief. But they don't mean anything. They don't fix anything. It's true, the pain and the reasons will be clearer and the peace will come in weeks or months or years, but the time it takes to gain the perspective hasn't passed yet and so talking about it is more painful than helpful. Don't. I remember a specific conversation with my own dad, who is a kind and awesome person. He told me that the sun would rise tomorrow. I told him that I wished it wouldn't, because it felt more like an insult than assistance. The idea that life goes on is painful and damaging to hear when you're experiencing real grief. Back off.

Do not talk about Madie in the past tense. Madie isn't gone. She's gone ahead. We haven't lost her, we've just been separated for a while and that hurts because the separation is so definite. Even missionaries get to write home and call twice a year. And now she is the best new missionary recruit to those spirits in prison, but that doesn't mean it isn't an adjustment for her. We don't know how much, because we have no experience with it. But every person who has gone ahead gets to come back, and we don't know when that's going to be. Maybe in another two thousand years, sure, but maybe it's tomorrow. But again, she isn't gone.

All these phrases make it feel like we have to move on. We don't. Sometimes loss hurts so much it's hard to breathe. And that's the way it should be. The depth of our grief is not a direct correlation to how much we loved her- the time it takes to start healing is not a set number of days or weeks or years. It is okay to hurt. It is okay to be in pain and to feel lost because in a very real way, we are. We spend our days assuming the people around us are going to be around us tomorrow and plan accordingly. The people who matter the most we plan around the most. When they are suddenly removed, they leave that hole where they used to fit. And then nothing else fits. So don't try to make people feel better about it. Try to let them know you understand, or if you don't, just let them know that it's okay to hurt. Because it is. Don't try to fix that or take it away.

Another one I always disliked was the trite but true "God has a plan." Yes He does. And as the Author and Finisher of our faith, He knows best. But saying that He has a plan is like saying the grass is green or sometimes it rains when it's cloudy. We know it's true, it doesn't help right now and there's no way to respond to it.

And it always particularly annoyed me because I felt that somewhere in this phrase it implied that my grief or my pain was the result of a lack of faith. Yep. Look at it again. You're trying to make me feel better by saying that this was part of God's plan, right? Which means that this ache is fighting against that plan, or at least complaining about it. And you're also telling me that somehow this death, this loss, was His idea. And you know what? I don't think it was.

I'm going to diverge a little here into something I'll call "The Book of Angie." I'm stealing the phrase from a friend I love dearly who's a physical therapy assistant. Her patients ask her for advice, but she's not a doctor. She has a lot of practical knowledge but not the definitive right to give prescriptions or treatment plans. So she has her "Book of" herself, where she gives her patience the advice they're asking for under the umbrella of "this is not a doctor's advice and if the doctor's advice ever conflicts, go with the doctor."

My book is how I see the world, and how I understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not believe that our Heavenly Father makes bad things happen. I believe He allows our agency and our agency causes problems for other people. I also believe that in His omniscience and omnipotence (all knowledge and all power) that He can find ways to make good things happen that would not have happened if the bad thing didn't open the way for it. And sometimes there are just tragedies. He didn't do it, He is not okay with making us hurt and He will do everything He can (which is actually everything) to make this all better in the end. So don't talk to me about His plan, because this pain and suffering is not His fault. He will figure it out and make everything all right eventually, and He is incredibly happy to have our loved one back, but I get to be bitter right now that I have been left behind and it hurts. Because that's part of the plan too. Hurting. Because hurting is part of loving.

So please, please, all of you who care about the people who love Madie, or anyone who has to talk to someone who has recently been left behind, please understand that it isn't about trying to make anyone feel better. There's a movie about my favorite author, C.S. Lewis. That movie is called "The Shadowlands." In it, Jack (C.S. Lewis' nickname) falls in love with a woman who has cancer (this is a true story). There's a part in the movie when they're talking about her having cancer and Jack is very angry at the prospect of losing her. She says, "The pain then is part of the happiness now. That's the deal." At the end of the movie, Jack repeats the line but with a change, saying, "The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal." We don't need to feel better. We need the pain now. And all you other people who care, who matter, you're still here. Which means you aren't terribly relevant to the pain now, unless you are also suffering it.

I startled Madie the first time I met her. I'd heard a lot about her from both her older brother's family, who was in my ward at the time, and from the young women I worked with. When someone introduced me to her I think I actually squealed and threw my arms around her, because she was exactly the way I'd pictured her. Not the calmest first impression, but she hugged me back right away. That's what you can do, if you're there on Saturday. Now is not the time for figuring things out, or feeling better. Now is the time for love and support by physical presence.

If you absolutely have to say something or your head is going to explode, I will give you two things that you may say if you mean them. Number one, "I'm here if you want to talk." That's it. Don't add anything. This tells the sufferer that they aren't alone, and it also gives them something they are sorely lacking. Any kind of control. That's why the word "want" is important, not "need." But you can't say it if you aren't serious about it.

Number two is even harder. It can feel awkward or out of place. But you can talk about the person who's gone ahead. You can share your favorite story, especially if it's funny. Talk about how you met. Talk about your favorite thing about them. It feels so taboo, but it shouldn't. It serves several purposes. It reminds the person to whom you are speaking that they aren't alone in their grief. Misery loves company, but not because misery is a sadistic jerk. Because people who are hurting can have that pain validated by others who are also in pain. And it gives them permission to also talk about it.

If you want to help more than that, make a donation. It'll help you feel better, too.

Morris Family Assistance Fund


  1. Shared joy is double joy. Shared sorrow is half sorrow.

    I don't know Madie, but I cried reading this. Everything you have said is so so true. Thankyou.

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