“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
This question and answer routine is a dance we learn as children. Politeness demands we ask it, and politeness also demands we make no claims as we answer.
But what about when it’s not ok?
There’s part of us that is terrified to feel the sadness. We have no motivation to feel the pain, to sit in emotions that feel too overwhelming to handle. So we eat, we drink, we numb out, but gosh dang it, it’s only temporary. The feelings are biding their time on the other side of the numb. They demand to be faced.
I am not a licensed therapist or mental health professional. If you are suffering and need treatment please seek the help of a professional. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
We have to be ok with ourselves not being ok.
And if it’s that difficult to face our own feelings, it’s magnified ten times when we see suffering written on the face of one we love.
We say, “oh, don’t cry” not entirely because we want to comfort the crier. It’s in part because their pain is making us uncomfortable and we want them to stop. Yet this response will make the hurting person even more upset or even embarrassed which is the opposite of helpful.
I can see this tendency in myself and it makes me cringe so badly. As one of those annoying Pollyanna optimists, my soul longs to find the silver lining. I am driven to reassure, to say “it’s not so bad,” to point out the part that is better than my past experiences.
Newsflash: A suffering person wants none of these “reassurances.” None.
What they hear is minimizing, the message that their sorrow is misplaced or somehow irrational because “it could have been worse.”
We have to be ok with others not being ok.
We have to learn how to do this and it does take practice. Bringing no comparisons, no solutions, no silver linings to the table. Simply bringing our presence, our hug, and our attention is all the sufferer longs for. A chance to talk if they want to talk, to be silent if they are silent.
Let them know you are in it for the long haul, because grief distorts time in a weird way. It makes hours impossibly long, full of minutes that you simultaneously wish over and dread passing because it brings you further away from your lost one. The healing that you know will lessen the razor sharp pain, but that you also resent because it makes them seem more gone. Remembering the final goodbye that once you knew it was inevitable you wanted to both hasten and stall.
We have to be ok with ourselves not being ok, AND others not being ok.
It’s like being stuck in a burning building. It’s freaking scary. Curling up under the bed, hiding from the flames and ignoring the fire feels safer. But it’s only temporary – the flames will find us anyway. The only safe way out is exactly how they taught us when we were five. On hands and knees, under the smoke, go directly to your exit. This soot covered exodus is a moment of supreme “not okay”. But it’s what’s needed to survive.
That smoky, scary, tear streaked crawl will bring us to safety. That firefighter who appears with a high beam flashlight to guide us and keeps the fire at bay long enough for us to get out, that is the power of a friend’s presence. We do not call for a firefighter to stand there and say, “Well I was in a worse fire yesterday, so you should chill out.” No. Heavens no! We need the one who holds our hand, who battles the confusion of the smoke beside us, and brings us over the threshold back into the fresh air.
May we always be willing to admit when we are not okay, hold space for others who are not okay, and be the hand to hold along the smoky journey for our loved ones.
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