In reading an assortment of magazines on life and parenting, I have noticed a big trend in people wanting to provide scripts to living. Over and over, I stumble across articles written by PhDs who wax philosophical about all the proper things to say (and not to say) to people experiencing a host of issues including death, infertility, disease, pregnancy, autism, and divorce.
For the record, I have said many stupid things in my life. I am usually trying to convey empathy, but I'm sure I fail more often than not. I try to understand the needs of the person who is experiencing pain, and then I say something that I think might help. On the days I've mucked it up, I do sometimes wonder if I should have just memorized one of those sociologist's scripts after all.
But I can't shake the notion that quoting from a mental health journal's bulleted list of accepted words is not really genuine. Many of the directives assume a one-size-fits-all approach. They fly in the face of how many of us handle adversity and sorrow. What might comfort one person might also enrage another. So we use our best judgement, take a deep breath, and make a few mistakes along the way.
In my life, I have experienced death, divorce, risky pregnancies, autism, and disease. When I review articles on acceptable things to say, I can't help but laugh. There is really nothing that resonates with me whatsoever. What I do remember helping me through times of trouble is the fact that somebody bothered to try to ease my pain. No matter how awkward. No matter how clumsy.
I come from people who say a host of inappropriate things to get through the worst moments of life. We make each other laugh. We tackle the big monster in the room head-on and refuse to offer the usual garden-variety murmurs of sympathy. We don't tip toe around the obvious pain or suffering. We acknowledge it. We offer whatever prescription medications we have in our purses. We volunteer to go beat someone up.
I know this approach doesn't work for everyone, but rarely will you find the use of humor in the Sensitivity Patrol's guide to masterful and appropriate phraseology. I get that it is not everybody's accepted method, so I don't use it a lot. But it's mine, and none of the experts will ever tell you, "Just make Marianne laugh...or buy her a big drink." And just as I appreciate the efforts of my friends to offer comfort to me in all their varying styles, I would hope that others accept my own verbal clumsiness as a misguided token of love and support.
If my own friends and family started reading from a sociology journal, I would recognize it immediately. Likewise, when my religious friends offer prayer and my irreverent friends offer liquor, I know that the effort is real and true to who they are.
We don't always get it right. More often than not, there is nothing we can say that will help. The bigger issue is that we are there, saying stupid things, because we love you.