Monday, October 23, 2017

With Sympathy

A great deal has been said about President Trump's handling, or mis-handling, of a phone call to express his condolences to Myeshia Johnson after the death of her husband La David T. Johnson as he served our country in Niger.

Mrs. Johnson and several others who heard the call were offended by Trump's saying, "He knew what he signed up for, but when it happens it hurts anyway." 

While Trump has denied saying it, I believe he said it but that it likely conveyed something he never intended-- that somehow it's not as bad to lose a loved one if he/she entered the situation willingly, such as through service to our country.

By denying his words, and then trying to cast doubt on the perception of "the wife" and "that congresswoman" he comes off as cruel and self-centered, and he breaks one of the first rules of offering sympathy which is don't make it about yourself.

And trust me, bereaved people remember quite accurately the tone deaf and hurtful words people say, despite how hard we might try to forget. 

Often the greatest harm comes from the words "AT LEAST" tacked onto expressions of sympathy.

At least you can have more children.
At least he is no longer on drugs.
At least you were married for 26 years.
At least she's in a better place.
At least he knew what he signed up for.

At leasts do not help the griever one iota, but people use them because they are trying to mitigate the magnitude of the loss, trying to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense and that cannot be fixed.

Grievers find no solace in at leasts. They are living the waking nightmare of trying to imagine a future without the one they love. They do not want their loss explained away or diminished.

A lot of discussion about what Trump said focuses on the phrase, "He knew what he signed up for" and fails to mention that he followed it with, "but when it happens it hurts anyway." That's not accurate, and that's probably what makes Trump so angry, angry enough to lash out at a grieving family, even as he says he is a champion of our soldiers and veterans. He did, in fact, acknowledge the Johnsons' pain, but we can see here how starting out with his own version of "at least" hurt more than it helped.

You may hear cries, even from the White House, that that Johnson family and their local congresswoman (and friend) are attempting to politicize his death. When your loved one's body is broken into pieces, when your child doesn't come home, you don't give a damn about politics. But you hurt, deeply, and you want to call out what you see as bad behavior or disrespect toward your loved one. At such a raw, tumultuous time it makes a whole lot more sense for a griever to be hurt and angry, than for someone to be angry at a griever. 

A good leader or a good friend can look outside of the discomfort he or she feels, can admit to not having the right words, and can show up without defensiveness or self-justification, even if it means taking the brunt of someone's hurt and pain. Caring, heartfelt words and presence are a balm, regardless of who gives them.

Of course it's not easy. 

Before my son died in a freak accident, I'm sure I said unhelpful and perhaps even hurtful things to grievers. I likely still do, but I'm getting better. People tell me they are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, they don't say anything at all. But because grief is incredibly disorienting and isolating, I encourage people to pick up the phone, make the call, or write the card anyway, even if it feels risky.

The more basic the better:

I am so sorry for your loss.
This really hurts.
(Loved one's name) will never be forgotten.
Words fail me.
I care about you and (loved one's name).

Yes, you might stumble or fumble. We all do. Be GRATEFUL if you are able to find out if your words have caused harm, for then you can address it. President Trump quickly discovered his words did more harm than good. In humility, he could have said, "I am sorry I caused you more pain. My words didn't reflect what I was trying to convey."

Or perhaps: "Words fail me, but that doesn't diminish how sorry I am for your great loss."

Addressing it does NOT mean denying you said what you did, or trying to justify yourself. What is perceived and received by the griever is what is most important here, if your intent is truly to provide sympathy and succor.

A dear friend drifted away after my son died. When I expressed that I felt she wasn't there for me, she pointed out she had sent me texts that I'd left unanswered. I'm sure she could have pulled them up on her phone as proof.

At a time of great loss, is it more important to dig in to try to win an argument, or to come alongside someone who is hurting? 

What can we all learn from this? 

Making condolence calls from the White House, or from your house, while necessary, is likely not anyone's favorite thing to do. You may feel tongue-tied and vulnerable. Any step feels like a potential mis-step. Do it anyway. You are on holy ground. When you mess up, as we all do, apologize for how it was perceived and felt by the grievers, not by you. Use the deceased person's name, again and again. Our greatest fear is that our loved one will be forgotten. Acknowledge pain with NO qualifications, no excuses, no buts or at leasts. 

Yes, words often fail. 
No, we can't fix anything. 
But we show up anyway, and we try to offer comfort.

And to the President: keep making those calls. It's what you signed up for, even though it hurts.

p.s. Current events led me to write this post about expressing sympathy, and I welcome your thoughts about it here. However, I will delete comments that are hurtful or disrespectful. Thank you!


Kelly said...

I wish he'd stop arguing about what he said so that the focus can be on the soldiers and how they died so we can prevent further deaths. Its so easy to just say "I didn't mean it that way, I'm so sorry" if you misspeak or if someone takes something in a way in which you did not intend.

Mom24 said...

Beautiful and well said. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Your words bring perspective! Thanks for that.

Unknown said...

That’s the best written piece I’ve read on this subject since it happened. Thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

That is the best take on this situation that I’ve read since it happened. Thank you so much for sharing. Your writing is beautiful and so on-point. Your son is smiling at you!

Diane said...

A wonderful book on this is Gerald Sittser's "A Grace Disguised" in which he talks about the loss of his mother, wife and daughter in a car accident. I remember him saying that real friends just showed up even if they had no words. They just showed up.

My younger son's friend was killed in a car accident at the age of 20, twelve years ago. I still email his mum on his birthday and anniversary of death every year just to let her know that her boy will never be forgotten by our family. It means the world to her.

Anonymous said...

I used "at least" once in a condolence. I recognized pretty soon after what a mistake it was. It makes me want to die when I think back on it.

Claire Weech said...

I love this, Anna! I agree with the other commenter (Angie) - this is the best discussion of this event I have read since it happened. I hope it gets read by many!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your powerful writing and for explaining so well that it's not about you, the person expressing sympathy. It's about the person who is grieving. If your words cause harm, as Trump's did, you must humbly your error and try again.

Sharon in Indy said...

I'm in a situation right now where I don't know what to say--if there is anything--besides "I'm sorry." My youngest brother remarried two or three years ago; they lived in the Southwest until very recently, and the rest of my family lives in the Midwest. Only one or two of our siblings made it to the wedding (we didn't), and while he has been back here with his wife a few times, we barely know her.

Her mother, still in the Southwest, passed away unexpectedly a couple of days ago, only a few months after they moved to the Northeast for a job. This woman had Alzheimer's but her passing was pretty much out of the blue. I've never met the woman; I don't even know her name. What do I say on a condolence card?

I know it was difficult for both of them to make this decision to move all the way across the country, because it meant not being near her mom or my brother's sons. The first (and most awful) thing that comes to mind is the idea that my s-i-l would feel relief that she doesn't have to worry about being away from her mother any more....clearly not the thing to say!!

Do you have any thoughts on where to go with this? I'm not in a position to offer to do something on either side of the country. :-\

Stefanie said...

I'm so glad you wrote this. I've heard you say this before, and because of that, I was able to encourage a friend to do just that -- show up -- when someone she knew lost her child in a tragic accident. My friend wanted to bring food, but felt she didn't know them well enough to "intrude" at this difficult time. I told her about your experience, and what you learned from it about just being there and listening, regardless of how close you felt to that person. So she did, and she told me the mother thanked her, for showing up and letting her talk about her son. The mom said that people would bring food but didn't want to stay and talk, and that was hard for her. She just wanted to be treated normally, and to be able to remember her son and talk about him. My friend thanked me for encouraging her with your words. So I'm thanking you :)

mamamarable said...

Anna, I love this. Thanks for taking the time to share this. At least is the introduction that turns my ears on fire when I experience a loss. I know in my younger years I said it to hide the discomfort of the death. I will be sure to teach my girls that showing up and choosing words that convey comfort are the things we must do for our grieving friends. Sending ❤️ to you. Oh and that closing statement....perfection!

Anna Whiston-Donaldson said...

Dear Sharon, I would suggest just saying you are sorry for her loss and telling her that even though miles separate you, you care. You could also mail a small gift such as a book or a comfort item such as a cozy throw blanket to wrap around her during particularly hard moments. xoxo

Karen L. said...

My husband and I spoke of what was said by Mr Trump: "He knew what he signed up for" and we felt that he magnified the soldier's sacrifice, not minimized it. The soldier knew what he signed up for and he did it anyway, despite knowing the danger and potential.All soldiers know that and serve sacrificially anyway. That was the meaning, I would imagine. But apologizing would have possibly been accepted though most likely not, in this political climate. So sad that a terrible situation was and is still being made worse by all this publicity.

Sharon in Indy said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Anna. That gives me an idea. <3

Ellen aka Ellie said...

This is good and true.

NanaDiana said...

A perfect post and follow up to what is going on. I am so sorry for that family and I think the President likely just botched what he was saying as we all do when it comes to offering sympathy because there are no clear-cut guidelines as to what we should say or do. My heart aches for all of them.

Peg said...

Some of your best writing. Absolutely spot on.

blog said...

I love this for so many reasons, but especially because it highlights something I've been thinking about a lot, and that's how important it is for each of us to know who we really are as children of God. Understanding our Divine worth and all that it entails enables us to give beauty for ashes, to return kindness for cruelty and carelessnes. It strengthens us to choose to love and serve others even when it's hard--not because of how well they deserve it, but because of who we are. The current state of frenzy in the world gives me lots of opportunities to reflect and deepen my understanding of this.

P.S- I've been reading your blog for years and I appreciate more than I can say how your faith has blessed my life.

Unknown said...

I've been thinking a lot about what has been going on and I keep thinking about "The Ring Theory"

"If the person you're talking to is on a smaller circle than yours, comfort them. Offer support, encouragement, and allow them to vent in any way they deem fit. Then feel free to vent your own frustrations to someone on a more outer circle than your own."

I hope President Trump realizes he is not healing/helping a family that needs comfort and changes his message.

Unknown said...

I appreciate what you shared. Dealing with death is so hard. I have heard, many times, the wrong words, the "trite" expressions. And later on I wondered was it better to hear those, than not hear at all? so, i accept the stumbling, bumbling words... and realize they are trying to show they care.

Only those who have "lost" (oh, how I hate that word . .those I loved are not lost... I can't search for them anticipating finding them..) loved ones know that sometimes sitting, crying, hugging means the most. The card sent a month later, or on my loved ones birthday remembering them touch my heart. the people who showed up to clean my kitchen and bathrooms, unasked, are so very appreciated. The lets go for a walk, or coffee mean so much. The meals delivered when work/school resumed were blessings in the midst of exhaustion as we sought "normalcy" to our days.

Grief is hard . . for those grieving and those seeking to consul the grieving.

As for Trump, sadly it is always about him. and that is not how to comfort the grieving.


Kerry said...

Eloquent and constructive, as always. Thank you for sharing.

Norma said...

Such a great post. I appreciate the insight into this matter.

Anonymous said...

the only thing that i can see that the word atleast do hurt at sorrowful times.

Anonymous said...

Thinking of Jack today and wishing you and your family all the blessings.

Falls Church neighbor

Mary Ann said...

We lost our oldest child, our first baby, 2 1/2 years ago. She died in her sleep. Things like this didn’t happen in our close knit family but it did.
She was in her 50’s, a new grand baby in her care, but age, circumstances etc., had no meaning for her parents, sisters and brother that she adored. I, her Mama, had someone at her funeral say to me, “she’s in a better place.” No, a better place was here in my arms. I know they really didn’t know what to say, so when you’re in this place, just say, I’m sorry. We don’t know what to say either.