LET’S do a self-diagnosis. Imagine you’re sitting across someone who’s important to you. It could be your partner, family member, friend or even a colleague. Now imagine that this person is telling you about something bad that has happened to them. Something devastating, such as a serious illness or a divorce, or even the death of someone important. What would your reaction be?
Are you the wailing friend who will start sobbing even more than the person who’s impacted and use up all the tissues?
Or are you the socially awkward colleague who will start making inappropriate jokes to try and better the moment?
Are you the minimally-empathetic sister who will just freeze, looking like you’d rather be watching Netflix?
February was not a great month for many people I know. For some reason, bad news just kept coming in — someone had major brain surgery, someone was diagnosed with cancer, someone’s sister died from an accident, someone had a still birth. These unfortunate events did not seem to slow down.
In the midst of all these, I found myself in a situation where I had to offer “support”. But what is the right thing to say? What is the right way to react?
ASSESS AND RESPOND
I’m going to be honest and say that I am not necessarily the most socially-apt person out there. At times, when bad news is conveyed, I question my ability to respond appropriately. This has less to do with empathy and more to do with my need to offer support in the right way.
A few years back when my father was due for his bypass surgery, his friend came to visit and convey his support.
“You’ll be okay,” he said. “But I also know someone who died on the operating table.”
Needless to say, this gave my father an anxiety attack. I am sure this friend only had good intentions, but perhaps the words needed some work. That was when I realised that although most of us only want to help, what we’re doing and saying can come across as totally opposite.
What I’ve realised through my experience (and actually, a lot of Google-ing and reading) is that the right way to respond is highly dependent on the personality of the person to whom you’re lending support.
For example, some people are highly realistic, and prefer to be consoled on the basis of what’s real and constructive.
Others are more emotional, and prefer that you just sit for hours and lend an ear while they express themselves (tip: bring junk food and tissues). Some people are more private, and you should enquire about the right time to appear and show support, instead of barging into their space with hands askew hoping for hugs.
It’s also important to think about how you’re contributing to the whole situation. In times of hardship, most of us will be at a sudden loss, with our lives going haywire and our routines all over the place.
Understanding this, perhaps the next fitting step is to ask this question. “What can I do to help in a constructive manner?”
I once read about a woman who sent a frozen casserole to her neighbour once every two days despite her busy schedule, knowing that her neighbour was undergoing cancer treatment and probably did not have the time and energy to make sure her children were well fed.
I thought that was an amazing example of how little actions can sometimes be a tremendous form of support. Accompanying someone to the hospital, or helping to arrange a funeral or assist in getting their work done at the office, in the end, our actions will speak louder than our words.
BAD NEWS NEVER HAS GOOD TIMING
It’s true. There is no such thing as the “right” time for bad things to happen. It’s part of life and different challenges occur to different people in varying intensities.
I used to think that I wouldn’t know how to react if someone lost a child, because I don’t have children and will never truly understand what it feels like.
I also used to wonder if I could lend the right support to someone with a grave illness, not knowing what the pain must be like or how rough the recovery process would feel.
But what I’ve come to learn is that you don’t need to completely understand something to be kind about it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t relate to the anguish. What is important is that you treat others with the understanding that hardships can be eased by even the smallest kind gesture.
It’s the time to step up in your role as a friend, family or community. And perhaps one day, when something terrible befalls you, your support system would show up in the same way as you have treated others.
After all, what is life if not to contribute to the service of each other?
A GEOSCIENTIST BY DAY AND ASPIRING WRITER BY NIGHT, AMAL GHAZALI PONDERS ON EVERYTHING, FROM PERPLEXING MODERN DAY RELATIONSHIP DILEMMAS TO THE FASCINATING WORLD OF WOMEN’S HEALTH AND WELLBEING. ALL DONE OF COURSE WHILE HAVING A GOOD LAUGH . READ MORE OF HER STORIES AT BOOTSOVERBOOKS.COM