Empathy

I am working on a training for a big company that will be rolled out world wide to more than 32 thousand employees. I am grateful that empathy is not just a topic but an entire module with practice and follow up coaching.

Few of us know how to show up for others any more. There is training for customer services representatives on empathy statements, but we know when we are hearing them. We hear phrases like “I’m sorry to hear that Ms. Bohannan,” with a robotic delivery and see right through them. Still, it is a step above what we demonstrate to each other sometimes.

Of course I am talking about grief and how to handle someone who is grieving. It is hard, I know, because we are afraid to go there. But unless you die young, you will go there. You will love people you desperately love, and you will feel like you cannot possibly survive. And you will wish that others knew how to be just a little empathetic, rather than avoiding you because they don’t know what to say, or leaving your life completely because you are ‘too sad.’ Or offering you one of the all too common, insensitive platitudes.

Please Skip the Platitudes

I mean the following and any and all statements resembling these:

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“Time heals all wounds.”

“Be thankful for the time you had.”

“I know how you feel.”

“You’ll see them again someday.”

These do less than nothing. They invalidate the other person’s feelings. I have heard all of these and more in the blackest depths of grief, when the thought of killing myself was the only thing that gave me any hope. And I can tell you, while I am sure the intentions were good, they actually pushed me further into that recessed pit of isolated despair.

Save Your Opinions

I’m not going to sugar coat this, people need to hear this: This grief doesn’t belong to you, and there is no room for your judgement.

If you have strong ideas about when the griever should “move on” with life, who they should date and when, where they should work, or live, how much they should be sleeping, whether or not they get a dog, what they eat for breakfast, or what color shirt they’re wearing, please keep them to yourself.

They aren’t helpful. At all. Ever.

But I don’t know what to say

First, empathy doesn’t start with ‘at least’, or ‘be positive’, or ‘get it together’ or ‘get over it’… it starts with the silence of listening. When someone close to you reaches out and shares something difficult, she is mostly looking for someone to listen.ere is what I wish I had heard more of:

“I wish I could make it better.”

“Wow, that really sucks.”

“I hate that this happened.”

“Thank you for sharing with me.”

And your person doesn’t know what they need. They can’t think, they just want their person back (or the situation to have never happened, etc.). They have a ton of things that need to be done in the wake of a loss and in general terms of taking care of themselves, but are underwater. There aren’t words to describe the anxiety and simultaneous fatigue that fill all space in your brain for thinking, remembering and reasoning.

What I really needed to hear, and I guess sometimes I still do,  were and are  things like:

“What do you need right now/today?”

“I’m happy to listen any time.”

“I would like to do _____ for you.”

“How can I help you?”

Memories Do Not ‘Hold Anyone Back’

I won’t even go into the cruel things others have said or even joked about regarding losing Albert and John-Mark. It is truly unbelievable how many people consider partners to be replaceable or disposable and feel free to joke about a partner dying. I can’t imaging they would treat the situation the same if someone lost a sibling or a parent or a child, and yet, while a spouse dying is the second most traumatizing loss for people (after the loss of a child), in my experience, it seems many can’t grasp that they and their absence will always be with the partner left behind.

My dead partners are with me forever.  Albert’s family can keep display his belongings in memorandum, his friends can display his photos on their walls, and yet, I’ve seen the sideways glances from friends, just months after Albert passed, when viewing our photo on the refrigerator where it had been since we printed it.  Oh I can keep photos of my beloved pets who have passed up for years and people think that is quite sweet. But a dead partner’s photo is somehow ‘holding me back.’

I want to remember them, to talk about them, and keep them in my life. My memories are not ‘holding me back.’ No, others don’t like to see my memories displayed because it makes them uncomfortable.

I wish people could tolerate the discomfort just a little bit better. I wish people asked me about Albert more, I wish people could simply acknowledge that I miss him. I wish people could go there and say, “This must be a tough time right now for you,” on anniversaries or significant dates. It would help so much.

The project I am working on is about becoming self aware enough to put yourself in other’s shoes in a general sense (and in the workplace). It is a hard place to go, connecting with the other person’s frustration or pain and trying to understand why they might be feeling the way they are. But empathizing is a skill that, once learned makes the rest of your life better. It helps you truly connect with others, it makes their lives better, it calms tense situations, it turns relationships around. It saves people.

To truly love your friend through grief, you have to deliberately choose to bear witness to their agony. Don’t turn away when it hurts too much or abandon them when things get weird and uncomfortable at the restaurant table. Keep loving them and love them hard.

Watching someone suffer is hard. But suffering alone is much harder.

You cannot take away anyone’s pain. You cannot even feel it alongside them. But if you stand by your grieving friend inside of the void, you may be the one thing that saves them from oblivion.

PS – grievers shouldn’t have to educate and advocate all the fucking time

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First and Last

“I am going to break this guy’s heart,” I thought to myself. It was our fourth date, and I knew he was a confident person but this evening I could see I made him visibly nervous.  He stood in my doorway with a bottle of wine. We had plans to meet for the evening, but that was it. And here he was, visibly trembling in my doorway.

I thought if I made anyone that nervous, there must be something weak in them, something I eventually would find too needy about them, too desperate. These of course were my own projections about things I dislike about myself. But I thought they were indications that I was stepping into something I knew, that I was in control, that I could rationally decide when to leave, as I thought I would if I were to continue.

How very wrong I was. That step tripped me. I fell so hard and I didn’t know if it was the ground or the sky hitting me. I suffered his absences. I split and blazed in his presence. I laughed and cried tears of euphoria with him, for him, because of him. I lived my life in a state of presence I’d never been able to manage before. I never wanted any of our moments together to end. “Ah, THIS is it,” I thought to myself. “This is what it is to love and be loved completely.”

I was safe and I was fully alive for the first time. And maybe the last time.

 

 

 

 

 

Anniversary

I couldn’t bring myself to write on the anniversary of his death 2 1/2 months ago.The notion that I will never see him again is too big. I faced it and felt it so deeply for so long, nearly ten months, until I could not embrace so much sorrow any longer. I had been going to every and all form of therapy and support groups, doing meditation, self care, acupuncture, spiritual practices, searching for meaning…that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. That’s what I didn’t do last time. That’s what I thought would help. But nothing ever did, ever does. I got angry and quit all of it.

I got sick of embracing a soul crushing pain that never lessened. Sick of feeling like I was under water, moving slower than the world, unable to make sense of the frenzy of life going on around me.  Sick of not knowing who I was anymore.

And I think I very nearly went down the rabbit hole; I came very close to losing my mind. I was certainly on the brink of something dark and frightening and I am not sure what it was. Maybe I was on the edge of enlightenment or maybe I was going to break. Whatever, wherever I was, I believed it led to a place I wouldn’t come back from, so I stepped back. I put my attentions on distractions and all the bullshit you do when you don’t know how to manage your feelings. Maybe someday I will regret this. Or maybe I will celebrate this. Who knows.

For his anniversary I spent the weekend with his family up in the mountains. We went to the ridge where we spread his ashes a year ago. It was beautiful and it sucked. Beautiful because the love we share for him brought us together, his sweet memories reside in all of us. It sucked for obvious reasons.

I thought pages and pages would pour out of me on his anniversary, but I couldn’t face it. Maybe I won’t ever again, I have no idea. I effectively turned off a switch and it could very well come back to bite me very hard later. Or maybe not, maybe I’m through something. But I’m not over anything. I’m trying to rebuild my life again, but this weight is always with me. I miss him and the future I lost with him so goddamn much. 

I’ll never get over my losses, nor should I, nor should anyone. I can heal, I can rebuild myself, but I will never be the same. I shouldn’t be and I don’t want to be.

 

death vs divorce

I can’t believe I am even writing this, but I must get it off my chest.

There is a difference. A big, hulking, overwhelming, devastating, sickening difference between ending a relationship and a partner dying. Divorce, separation is a choice. It happens typically because love is lost or not strong enough to get through  problems or the changes/growth of one partner.

But with death, the love was there and in many circumstances, it was still growing and developing.  My relationship was amazing. I had no doubt in my mind we would be inseparable until old age .

I am posting this because there are an unbelievable number of people who believe they understand what I am going through. They do not. They cannot. I’ve heard from many, many people who have been through both the death of a spouse and a divorce, and all of them_every single one__say that divorce is MUCH easier.

What’s more, there are a handful of folks who have dared to posit to my face that I am LUCKY that my partner died. LUCKY – because he did not leave me. The fuck??? This was not a choice. Your partner chose to leave you for a REASON. I never, ever wanted, nor did Albert want, this relationship to end at any cost. AT ANY COST. We were already fighting to make our relationship far better than either of us could ever had imagined. I would have died for that man. And I know he would have died for me.

This is harsh but being on the receiving end of all this shit is harsher. So to everyone who thinks they know, or thinks I have it easier in some twisted way because my love died, I have only two words for you: One begins with F and the other with Y.

Peace

Nothing helps anymore. Not therapy, not meditation, not spiritual connection, not talking, not distracting myself, not new activities or new people. I’ve quit all the therapy and PTSD treatments and yoga and acupuncture and spiritual groups and grief groups. I’m done. I’m tired of feeling, because all I feel is sorrow. There is no end, it will never fucking end. I’m a broken person and I accept this will be the rest of my life.

I go through the motions. I do activities. I try to work. I ride my bike. I try to catch up on the responsibilities that I have fallen so far behind with. I am around people. Sometimes not the right people but at least I am not alone. I make poor choices. I’m vulnerable and don’t care. And after all of it, I am still in the same place. Talking to his photograph, empty.

I have done many important things in my life and accomplished so much. My life was full before I met him. But he expanded my life in one year more than my life expanded in the previous 8. I cannot live without him. All the time I have lived and will live since he died is wasted.

I just want some peace. There is none.

Please don’t try to fix it

If I am with you and something overwhelms me with sadness, please don’t try to distract me by telling me what I should be excited for. If you ask how I am, and I am truthful, please don’t try to change my focus by listing all of the things I should be grateful for.

If I am crying because it is a significant date (or I came across a photo of Albert unexpectedly, or one of our songs came on in a restaurant, or I see the motorcycle he road, or pass the market we used to go to together…) please don’t point out how I am so much more fortunate than others in the world and so I should decide to be happy.

If I am overwhelmed with a longing for the love of my life and my lost future, please, don’t try to fix my pain. There is no fixing it.

Instead, please hold out your hand and tell me that it is here for me to hold. That your shoulder is available for me to cry on, that your heart is big enough for both of us. That your angels are ready to fight my demons, and that you are here.

 

08/08

I don’t want to mark this day each month. I don’t want to feel it approaching, anticipating the flood of emotions that will come whether I want them to or not. I want to go back, to return to when we celebrated with joy 16th of each month, marking the day we met that July.

There is relief in nothing, and I now know there never will be. I can feel other things now, I learned it is possible to feel other emotions alongside the sadness, and I am grateful for that. But missing you never stops, it never lessens, I think about you every minute.

I have engaged in multiple forms of therapy, joined new activities, made friends, reached out (sometimes desperately) to old friends and even strangers, withdrew, attended grief groups, talked with mediums, gone to church, and meditated. I’ve done EFT, been to energy healers, acupuncture, reiki, and sacrocranial therapy. I prayed for death for six months. I’ve drank far too much and too often, distracted myself, and kept endlessly busy. I’ve talked and written to you endlessly and cried rivers of tears…

Still everything is unbearable without you.

I want to go back to the time when 8 was my number – my birthday month, my numerology number, my race number – my lucky number. I hate that I mark this day each month as the day you died. I hate all of this.