Sunday, May 20, 2012

CHRISTMAS TIME in MANHATTAN: A True Story

It was December, Christmas was days away and I’d just moved to my new apartment on the 23rd floor of a building near Lincoln Center. My friends were all out of town with their families for the holidays, my furniture hadn't arrived and my apartment was freezing because the heat hadn’t been turned on yet.
To warm up, I took a hot shower and sat on the floor watching the shower steam freeze on the inside of the windows.
Outside, snow swirled and it was as cold as a Wall Street banker’s heart.  When it gets this cold, New Yorkers ruthlessly replace dainty fashions with thick, woolen scarves wound around the head like bandages, heavy hoods pulled down over shapeless caps, giant leather gauntlets, bulky padded coats and massive snow boots to combat the cold and resolutely crunch through the slush. Inside my apartment, I wrapped myself in wooly scarves, caps, gloves and coats and listened to the cockroaches scampering about in the kitchen.
My phone rang.
“Hello?”
“Hello. I’m Jack,” said an unfamiliar voice. “I was just calling numbers randomly and you answered this one.”
What to say to that?
I had nothing better to do, so we chatted about Sartre, existential ontology and, as I was still freezing, I agreed to meet this potential serial killer in a warm nearby cafĂ©. What could he do to me there, beat me to death with the copy of Camus’ “The Stranger” he said he’d be carrying?
Incredibly, he was a normal-looking, educated, interesting man and we had some hot chocolate and a lively conversation about Paris in a nice warm place. I'd love to say sparks flew, hearts thumped and we spent the rest of our lives together but, at the end of our chat, we just wrapped ourselves up again in our winter armor, said goodbye and returned to our respective lives never to see each other again.                       
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Monday, May 14, 2012

COMFORTING and CONSOLING

I don’t know about you, but I almost always feel at a loss for words when a friend loses someone close to them, probably because death makes me uncomfortable and I’m stupidly thinking about saying the right thing instead of my bereft friend’s feelings.  Having recently been on the receiving end of condolences, I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one who feels awkward about this. Often, well-intentioned people will interrogate you, perhaps thinking this shows concern: What happened, when, how, why etc., can I help?  The worst is the hurried gloss over the death and the long story about their own experience (I've done this myself), intending, I think, to show empathy but this is of absolutely no interest to a grief-stricken person.

The last thing a grief-stricken person wants is to answer questions or make decisions. The only thing they need is to be comforted and taken care of.  Letting them know you’re aware of their suffering and concerned for their welfare is about the most helpful thing you can do. Make them a cup of tea or a stiff drink or both. A comforting presence is thebest thing you can give a grieving friend. But if you can’t be there, a phone call is the next best thing.  And a short sincere note is always better than a printed card.  

The only words you need are: I’m sorry for your loss. Please accept my condolences. The ghastly finality of death does require a certain formality, so “condolences” is a good, respectful word to use.  If you want to keep talking, be sure not to
mention yourself or your losses, don’t give advice.  Mentioning yourself and comparing your loss to theirs makes it like a grief competition.  This is the hardest bit to get right. 

You should acknowledge the  grief: You must feel terrible. Would you like to talk about it?  They won’t really be listening to any flowery words from you, anyway. Grief is a very big emotion and deserves a lot of respect. Put yourself aside and honor the berieved's profound and life-altering feelings. If they want to talk, all you need to do is listen attentively until they stop.

Shared silence with a light touch, an embrace, a held hand is probably worth more than words in these circumstances.

Suffering a loss is hard.  Comforting a grief-stricken person is easy.
 
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