Belittling someone’s pain

I was browsing through CNN the other day and read an article about Sheryl Sandberg’s address to the graduates at Berkeley. In her address, she spoke publicly about her husband’s death for the first time, how this very tragic incident taught her something very valuable in life, which is finding gratitude on bad days. I was surprised to read some of the readers’ comments on the article, many thought talking about death at such a happy occasion was not appropriate. This is something that we can discuss and have different opinions about, we can even have difference of opinions about whether she is an inspirational figure or not. But what shocked me was that some thought she should deal with the loss of a child before she can talk about finding gratitude in grief, as if losing a child is more tragic than losing her husband; some said that she’s so well off financially that she doesn’t have a thing to worry about, as if the pain of losing someone is diminished if you have a fat bank account; some even thought of her as very selfish because she was napping while her husband was on the treadmill and she had not convinced her husband to rest too. Most of us would agree that such comments should just be ignored since they are both insensitive and inappropriate. This post however is not about Sheryl Sandberg and her loss.

This article got me thinking about the times that we make insensitive and inappropriate comments when someone we know is dealing with pain or loss (and I am not talking here about people that are chronic complainers or those that are always negative or pessimistic). Sometimes we mean well, but what we say is far from helpful or comforting and very often we end up making things worse for them with our insensitive remarks.

It made me think about what I do or say when I meet someone who is going through a difficult period in their life or when someone tells me about something they are struggling with?  Do I do or say something that gives them the feeling that I don’t take their pain seriously and/or that they are making a big thing out of nothing/something small?

How do I react when a friend tells me about their pain or loss?  Do I tell him/her that someone I know is going through the same and continue to talk about this other person and don’t stop to listen to my friend? Do I tell him/her that someone I know went through something worse than what they are facing and so their problem is nothing or much smaller in comparison?
What do I do when someone I know is going through a difficult situation that is similar to what I have experienced myself? Do I tell them that I know exactly what they are going through and proceed to tell them all about my problems (even though they haven’t asked me for advice!) shifting the focus from them to me? Do I continue to talk to them non-stop, taking undue advantage of the fact that they might be too disturbed to protest? Do I wait till I am asked by the person for advice or do I just dole it out because I am convinced I know better?

Do I tell them that everything will be alright in the end, that they will be grateful for the bad experiences, that years later they will look back on this situation and know that it was “nothing”? Do I seriously think that this is the moment for “tough love”?

As a Christian, what do I do when I meet someone who is in despair or troubled? Do I tell them that I will pray for them and forget about actually doing so later? Do I even go so far as to tell them that they are directly or indirectly responsible for what has happened? Do I leave them to deal with their pain and sorrow all alone, run away because I feel incapable of helping them and return when “all is well” either because I hope that someone else will help them or because I think it’s not my battle and I have to take care of my own issues? And do I justify my behaviour by telling them that God is using this terrible experience to “toughen them up” and teach them a “precious lesson in dependency on Him alone?”
Do I tell them that all will be well, they shouldn’t worry, that God will definitely answer their prayer (e.g. restore health, relationships, jobs etc), quoting verses out of context to build them up and give them false hope? And if their prayer is going unanswered, do I tell them that they are not praying hard enough? On a side note, I have seen many people lose their faith because God’s will was different than what they had prayed for and because people of God had given them such assurances and false hope..

I personally have experienced all of the above when I was going through some very difficult periods in my life. But I was also blessed to have colleagues and a handful of friends who helped and to an extent carried me through these difficult times. People who felt helpless in the face of my pain but didn’t run away and asked themselves what they could do to help me – people who just sat with or next to me while I was waiting for a phone call from hospitals to know more; people who cooked a warm meal for me because I was too disturbed to think of eating; people who heard me out and didn’t interrupt; people who had no words to console me but held me and cried with me; people who called me up every hour to check on me; people who booked a flight, hotel or appointment for me; people who called my friends to keep them informed because I didn’t have the strength to call everybody. There were also some people who honestly apologized when they had left me alone in a needy hour and made amends in some way or the other later.

When I see or hear of a friend in pain, do I tell them through what I say or do that I feel their pain; that I care for them and am there for them? I can always ask myself if there is anything I can do to help or how I can be there for them – be it something concrete like cooking a warm meal, helping with the laundry, watering the garden, taking their dog out for a walk, babysitting their children so that they have time, being there for them on the phone so that they have someone to talk to (and letting them do the talking!). And if I feel overwhelmed, incompetent or incapable of helping or understanding them, the least I can do is not to belittle their pain by “well meant” words or advice – not even on Facebook or on any other social media channels.


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