Our first reaction when someone is suffering is to say,” don’t worry, it’ll be okay.” We want to ease the other person’s suffering and we do this by assuring them that like all bad things, this latest problem too will pass. It’s a go to phrase that we probably all use, in fact if may be the first thing you pull out of your lexicon of platitudes when confronted by a weeping friend.
Sometimes, your instinct is probably right. It will be okay. I’m generally of the view that most things will be okay in the end, if only because we will adapt to new situations out of sheer necessity if we have to. Plus, we don’t know how rubbish the alternative would be…. things may well have turned out terribly, worse than the eventual outcome of the “bad thing”, who is to say?
Other times, we say it because it’s just about the only thing we can say. I recall one occasion, many years ago, when I comforted a stranger at a party. I didn’t know the weeping girl more than to say a few polite hellos to, but given that she was sat in a corner on her own, I felt I should do something; someone should help silence the wailing heap before me. I knew little more than her name, had no idea what she was like as a person and could fathom little about the problem through her heavy sobs. Rubbing her back and telling her that everything would be alright was just about the only thing I could say.
But surely there must be times when saying it’s okay will absolutely be the wrong thing to say?
I’m reminded of the Macmillan Cancer Support advertisements currently airing on our UK television. The advert focuses on a woman, in hospital, receiving cancer treatment. She seems to be doing well, hooked up to her drip, but reflects on the different people who have supported her during this difficult time, both directly (like the wonderful Macmillan nursing team) and indirectly. She imagines different people being in the room with her, and she thanks them for everything they’ve done – her son for being so wonderful, the workman who donated money to the charity, her husband and those who have supported him, and her mother for “not saying everything will be okay. That line in the advert made me sad, but also made me smile. I think it’s one of the most important ones.
Sometimes, saying that something terrible will all work out for the best, that it will be okay, can diminish the very real fear, anger and pain that someone is suffering. Sometimes, the best thing you can say is “I am so sorry; you must feel very sad.” It allows the person to let those feelings out, not diminish them. It’s about making them feel better; comfortable to talk about how they genuinely feel, not making you feel better. You can’t fix the situation, you can’t make them feel better, and you can only be there. Feeling better about the situation can be just as much about coming to terms with it, as it is about fixing it.
When I had a suspected miscarriage, lots of people told me it would be okay. I knew it wouldn’t be… I knew that the worse scenario was going to happen, and I was right. While I was trying to prepare others around me that the “bad thing” could happen, they were trying to tell me that it probably wouldn’t and that they were sure everything was going to be alright. I know their intention was good, but I found it exhausting having to smile and reassure them.
Sometimes the biggest gift you can give someone is to just acknowledge that they feel sad, that their fears are justified, that they are grieving over the loss of health, a loved one, life as they knew it. Sometimes all you need to do is acknowledge their pain…. don’t tell them it will be okay, recognise that it’s going to be tough, that unpleasant things will need to be considered… but remind them that they are strong, that they are tough, they can win. Whatever the outcome, just acknowledge how they feel right now, and squeeze their hand.
[ a vague disclaimer is noones friend… these views, as always, are my own, taken from my experience and those of people around me. I often get it wrong and put my foot in it, just like the next person… but hey, doesn’t thant make us human?]