Two words that should be used with extreme caution. Because the truth of the matter is, sometimes we just can’t understand. Unfortunately, there are things in this world that we will never understand.
Webster’s dictionary defines understand as “to be thoroughly familiar with; to apprehend clearly the character, nature or subtleties of…”
This past Tuesday I took Gideon to a research facility to have his vision examined. I was not surprised when the girl administering the test could not get him to look at the first card. I explained to her that we had received a diagnosis of PBD since our last visit and with that, she went to get the Optometrist on staff. So a very young doctor came in and after doing some testing with light, she determined that Gideon was legally blind as opposed to totally blind (apparently he has light perception…meaning he turned his head towards the light where it was being shown).
Even though I was not surprised by this, hearing it out loud sent me into a moment of tears. So she gave me that look and with a tone of confidence, she said those two words that boil my blood… “I understand.” At that point, my emotional despair quickly turned into anger and frustration. I took a deep breath, gave her the benefit of the doubt and sweetly questioned, “Do you have children?” After she replied no, I took a page from my friend Holly’s book and said, “Hmmm.”
I was thinking about taking the opportunity to educated her about inappropriate responses to another’s tragedy, but I thought my words might come across as harsh. So I chose to be quiet. After all, I do not know her whole story any more than she knows all of mine.
And then it happened again.
I had just given her a little more detail about my son’s diagnosis and in the middle of my tearful explanation she said, “It’s okay, I understand.”
And with that, I asked her (very sweetly I might add), “Do you know someone who is blind and deaf? Do you have other patients with this terminal disorder?” To which she replied, “No….. but my grandmother was blind.” At this point I was too angry to educate. Since the appointment was basically over, I asked her if there was anything else she needed to do. As she shook her head no, I gathered my kids and left.
I wanted to share this story for a few reasons. First of all, everyone’s life experience is different and it’s so hard to know what to say in the midst of someone’s brokenness. Obviously, I do NOT have the market cornered on despair, but I have learned some things that are appropriate when someone shares their heartache and I would like to share them with you all now…
1. Silence is okay and often times needed. I have very much come to appreciate my friends who can just be with me with no words spoken. But if you MUST say something, go with your feelings for them. A friend once told me, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but my heart hurts for you and I’m here to walk beside you.” That statement meant so much.
2. Listen more than you share. It’s so important to wait to share your experience with tragedy. While your experience may be relevant, it’s always a good idea to wait for an invitation to tell your story. What you have to share may truly be on par with someone else’s hurt, but in the moment of someone’s tears and brokenness, your story may not bring as much comfort as you think.
3. “I understand” is not the best thing to say. Truthfully we can never understand what someone else is experiencing unless we’ve been through something similar; and even if we’ve been through something similar, our lives are so unique that we still cannot understand another’s life experience. Only Jesus can do that.
4. **Stay away from clichés– “Everything happens for a reason” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” etc….those words are not comforting in moments of grief. I will be the first to testify that God works everything for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and His grace is sufficient for our trials (2 Corinthians 12:9). Yet, clichés like the ones mentioned above, have never made a grieving person feel better about their situation. I haven’t heard of anyone who wrote “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” on a note card to reference/lift their spirits throughout the day. On the other hand, scriptures (like the two mentioned above) is always worth re-reading in moments of despair.
I am in no way upset with that sweet girl who said she understood. In fact, there may have been more to her story that she could not share with me for professional reasons. Honestly, had I dove in with my feelings, I would have said some things I might regret and my words would have fallen on deaf ears. In that moment I decided to extend some grace…after all, Christ does that for me. (Romans 5:8).
This past Tuesday reminded me that loving others even when their words hurt, is hard. Nevertheless, I do not believe for one second that people intentionally extend hurtful words to those who are grieving. Honestly, it’s just down right difficult to know what to say when someone is in the depths of despair. And that’s okay.
I learned through my counseling classes saying, “I understand” does more damage than good; and after this past Tuesday, I know first hand how much it hurts. It took me some time, but I have finally realized that the only person who truly understands our hurts, our grief and our despair…is Jesus.
**On a side note, if you have ever said any kind of cliche to me in these past few months, please know that I am not offended by them. I am very much appreciative that you took the time to encourage us and we are aware that your heart is sincere. Your love and care for us is beyond anything we could ask for, and we are so grateful for all the support that we have received, no matter what form it came in-words, actions, or silence. Thank you for loving us the best way you know how.