I’m big into acknowledgment.
When Jack and Margaret would fall down, I didn’t say, “Get up! Shake it off!” even though I know that works for some people. Instead, I did what I would want someone to do for me, “Wow! That was some fall? Where does it hurt?” It’s not that I wanted to turn tiny things into big things, or make my kids into wimps, but I don’t believe that’s how acknowledgment works anyway. I think acknowledging someone’s pain, stress, or struggle helps them feel understood and strengthens them to move forward.
I tried to teach Tim this early in our relationship, because we seemed complete opposites in this regard. The results have been mixed. When I would be going through something, either big or small, and try to tell him about it, he would be silent. Like no sounds whatsoever. This could be because he processes things more s-l-o-w-l-y than I do. Or that he was under the impression that if you ignore a problem, it goes away, but if you acknowledge it, it grows. Ha.
Take, for example, if I got sick, like maybe even cracking a rib from coughing while pregnant. I'd want to hear, "That sucks!" or, "What a pain!” This would make me feel cared about, and I would want to be brave and strong and try my best to get better.
I don’t think Tim ever thought about it consciously, but it seemed to me that he worried if he acknowledged my pain, whether physical or emotional, that somehow he’d get stuck staying home from work taking care of me and who knows what kind of chaos and madness would erupt?
I think it’s the opposite.
I believe acknowledgment, or letting someone know she’s been heard, diffuses many situations. In fact, when he didn’t acknowledge that I was sick or stressed, I’d feel the need to say, “Boy I still feel terrible today! Cough. Cough” again and again, because, Hello, he obviously hadn’t heard me the first 5 times! Same thing with problems in our relationship. I would want to acknowledge when we were in a bad spot. Not talk it to death, mind you, but at least bring it out into the light. He would look scared, shocked, and silent.
This has improved over the years as Tim gingerly uses a few phrases I’ve taught him, “That must be scary.” “You sound pretty upset about that.” “That stinks.” He has found if he acknowledges me, I feel like he is present with me and is not just hoping I’ll just shut up and go away.
When it comes to losing a child, particularly in a split-second accident, many people are ready and able to acknowledge your pain. They may not be able to fully grasp how terrible it is to try to live without your child, but they freely acknowledge a huge, huge loss has occurred. The acknowledgment we have received from so many people (YOU!) has surely made us feel less alone.
But there are many people suffering losses who might not get the kind of support we have. They may be going through a divorce. They may have lost their job and therefore, their identity. They may be mourning an elderly parent or a good friend. They may have lost a child during pregnancy or at birth.Acknowledgment of child loss could also be complicated by it being a suicide, drunk driving, or a drug overdose.
I wonder whether those who lose children to cancer get as much acknowledgement as those who have died in a sudden accident like Jack did. If a child has struggled for years, friends may compassionately think it is a blessing for the child to be free from treatments and pain, but they may forget parents are mourning the healthy child they knew and loved and also all they hoped for that child in the future.
Even as I crave acknowledgment in my life, I admit many times I’ve avoided acknowledging others’ pain because I was afraid they would then need too much from me. Sound a little like Tim? It’s like when I prayed and prayed for new neighbors because I wanted to be a bright light for them, helping them find their way in our town. But I really didn’t want them to be too needy or vulnerable, just enough for me to swoop in (and OUT!) with a smile and maybe a cookie tray.
Now, with Jack’s death, I am the hurting, vulnerable one. I am the one who needs acknowledgment and support. I pray that I can meet the needs of those around me without worrying that being with them in their pain will require more than I can give.
I want to remind myself that acknowledging others' pain can be a balm to their hurting souls.
I want to show up for others as you have shown up for me.