The main goal was not to say anything stupid. Or hurtful. So, when it was my turn to offer words of comfort, I said the first thing that came to my mind, and, to be honest, it seemed perfect in the split second before the words came out of my mouth.
I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
As soon as they were uttered, I could see the words float through the air like tiny bees. I could see as they landed. I could see as they stung.
I am not sure what I thought I was saying, but I could see in an instance what was heard: this thing that has happened to you is so bad, I cannot go there with you. It makes me too sad, too angry. The place it takes me is too dark.
It is a common phrase. I’d said it a million times; in all honesty, I’ve probably said it a million times since I realized it was a problematic phrase. Now, let’s be clear. There are blogs out there, book chapters, pseudo-religious tracts — all telling us what not to say to a person who is grieving, or who has cancer, or who lost their jobs. Dear reader…this is probably just like those. Sorry about that. When I counsel people who are grieving, I normally suggest that they hold tight to comfort that the other person is trying to convey, even when the words come out wrong. So, it isn’t my intent to give someone a baseball bat with which to bludgeon another person for not saying the right thing. My hope is to give us all access to better images and words so we can be more present with one another.
I have three problems with this phrase. First, that we have forgotten that it is a hyperbole. Second, that it represents, as it says, a failure of imagination. And, finally, that it is, quite simply, a failure of empathy – the very emotional state we’re trying to convey.
Just a few days ago, the news broke that a man carried two knives into a crowd of school children in Japan, killing one person and injuring several others before turning the knives on himself. As I listened to reporting of the tragedy, the journalist used words like “unimaginable” and “unthinkable.” It occurred to me, at that moment, that these words are hyperbolic – they are metaphorical exaggerations. We’ve become so accustomed to these phrases that we no longer recognize them as such. Perhaps, before the became truly clicheé, these phrases helped separate the average from the horrifying. But, really, can any tragedy – large or small; breaking news or not – be described? imagined? Probably not. Images and metaphors help us get a handle on things that are outside of day to day living. These exaggerations do not.
But what does a word like “unimaginable” do for us, really, in the face of loss? It is isolating to think that something is so beyond the pale that even those closest to us cannot imagine it. Recently, the streaming service Netflix has been advertising a show called Dead to Me. (Some in my loss support group have cautioned me away from it due to grief triggers, a warning I gently provide to you, dear reader.) In the trailer, a woman, dressed in black, opens her door to a condolence- and casserole-bearing neighbor who says, “Jeff and I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” So, the grieving widow opens the doors of imagination for the neighbor: “Well, it’s like if Jeff got hit by a car and died suddenly, and violently…It’s like that.” Cue the awkward moment. Unfortunately for us, this phrase represents a truth that the grieving encounter again and again: we are alone in our grief because what has happened to us simply hits too close to home for many people.
My grief mentor told me that in the months after her daughter died, she was “not fit for human consumption.” I remember those days, too. Everyone and everything reminded me of what was lost. Each day was a step into a future I never wanted, and, truly, never imagined. But now it was my reality. For many people where I was…was simply too deep and dark for them. If we are honest with ourselves, we are always only moments from tragedy. Each phone call – this one could be the daycare with the scariest news a parent ever hears, or that one, the police with a terrifying truth about a teenage child. It is never that we cannot imagine another’s reality, it is that we are unwilling to give up the shaky sunshine of this day for the sake of someone else.
But, the grieving aren’t asking us to go all the way down to where they are, but just to go far enough that we can be honest about how it feels:
When I think about what you’re going through, it feels like my heart will stop.
Quick aside, friend to friend. Notice, I didn’t tell a story. I love to tell stories. And sometimes my stories are really right on. But really, is your dead hamster like someone’s true love? Is your root canal like a mastectomy? Really? Let your stories open you up to another, but, maybe, wait a little while to see if they’re really the best thing to share.
When I think about what you’re going through right now, I feel like I’m in a tunnel and I can’t see the light. I can imagine this is very scary for you.
You see, when we are honest, when we take the trouble to imagine, even a little bit, what “this” might be like for those we love, then we assure them that we are with them. There is this hymn, “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant,” by Richard Gillard, and the middle verses are so poignant, “I will hold the Christ-light for you / in the nighttime of your fear; / I will hold my hand out to you, / speak the peace you long to hear.” And, “I will weep when you are weeping; / when you laugh I’ll laugh with you. / I will share your joy and sorrow / til we’ve seen this journey through.”
Dear reader, perhaps one of the greatest kindnesses we extend to others is to take the trouble to imagine their reality. When we are in the darkness of grief, one of the truths we must face is that the future we had imagined is no more. The people who are willing to imagine our present are also the ones who hold open the doors of a new future. Because they have imagined where we are, they are also the ones who can help us imagine a new future. They are the ones who hold onto hope until we can grasp it for ourselves. They are the ones who shine the light, not always the whole way, but near our feet so that we do not stumble as we journey.