Soon after the passing of my wife, I published two articles. One was a series of reflections on the shiva process, and the second was an attempt to offer advice on how to best help people experiencing difficult, traumatic life events. Shortly thereafter, though, I wrote a third article which I subsequently decided not to publish. That article was, at face value, less constructive and, unlike the first two articles, it served only to highlight a problem without offering clear advice or solutions for how to grapple with it.
However, as the weeks turned into months and I found myself interacting with more and more people dealing with their own traumatic events, I changed my mind. To be clear, my intention in belatedly publishing this article is not to vent or express my frustrations; rather, my hope is that it may simply help to provide some insights into the minds of individuals contending with tragedy. In fact, I have already shared the following idea privately with many people facing similar challenges, and each one, without exception, reacted with the same sense of relief—one that accompanies the feeling of being truly understood. Before I continue, I should clarify that while my tone may be a bit harsh at times, please know that it comes not from a place of resentment, but from a deep, impassioned desire to allow others to relate and connect to people when they feel most alone.
Every individual coping with illness, suffering, or loss will do so in their own way. People react differently and every one of us has different needs, which is why it is important for me to highlight that I speak not only from my own personal experience, but from my many conversations with others who have been in comparable situations, as well.
Let’s start with a scenario that, while hypothetical, also exemplifies the frequency and regularity with which these types of interactions transpire on a day-to-day basis. Say, for instance, that I am in the supermarket (or synagogue, school parking lot, etc.) and I bump into someone whom—due to my own reclusive efforts to avoid these exact encounters—I have not seen for a few weeks or months. The well-intended individual begins by leaning their head ever so slightly to one side, usually to the right. As we approach one another, their lips start to sag, forming what is perhaps best described as the ‘puppy dog face.’ The next step, and my personal favorite, is marked by a halfhearted attempt to rub my upper back and shoulder, followed closely by a deep sigh, which often feels three minutes long. Then, spoken in the most somber voice they can muster, comes the inevitable, “How are you?”
If this has been you, please don’t be embarrassed—I was probably doing the same routine not long ago. Somewhat counter-intuitively, though, despite even the most earnestly empathetic objectives, these instances often leave the recipient feeling worse than they did before. Allow me to try to explain:
Before I saw you, I was already painfully aware of the grave misfortune defining my current life. This is true because I have been unrelentingly confronted with the resulting hardships 24/7 for many days, weeks, or even months. The way you speak to, look at, and act towards me, though well-intended, makes me feel like a nebuch. Every human being wants to feel good about themselves, and conversely, no one—no matter how difficult a situation they are dealing with—wants to feel like a nebuch.
I know some of these gestures feel instinctive. After all, human beings have a natural tendency to feel bad for people facing difficulties. As such, on the surface this all seems like an extremely appropriate and sensitive approach. The problem, however, is that in feeling bad for others, we tend to pity them, and no one wants to be pitied.
At this point it’s fair to ask: What should I do? If feeling bad for the person is the wrong response, what is the right response? I would argue that your goal should be to show the person how much you care, and not how sad you feel. I firmly believe that, although this distinction is extremely nuanced, acknowledging it can make all the difference.
In a powerful TED Talk entitled, I Was Almost a School Shooter, Aaron Stark describes how his best friend saved him when he was down on his luck and had resorted to sleeping in a shed. Aaron describes the type of kindness that saved him in the following manner:
Just simple acts. It wasn’t the kind of overbearing kindness where they say: “Is there anything I can do for you? Can I do something to make it better? How can I help you?” It was just sitting down next to me. “Hey, would you like a meal? Let’s watch a movie.” He treated it like it was a Tuesday. He treated me like I was a person. When someone treats you like a person when you don’t even feel like a human, it’ll change your entire world, and it did for me.
While Aaron’s situation may have been quite different from the experience of losing a loved one, his insight regarding kindness is applicable to any difficult dynamic. People, even in moments when they feel ‘less than,’ want to be treated as equals. As soon as your demeanor starts to convey sympathy, as opposed to empathy, the recipient is automatically made to feel ‘less than.’
Hopefully, this distinction will make it easier for people to understand why certain phrases that might seem innocuous are at best ineffective and at worst, hurtful. A text that reads, “Hashem should give you strength,” can come across as patronizing. Similarly, a person saying, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” beyond being an empty offer, often carries a degree of condescension. I want to be extremely clear—I don’t think that these are ever the conscious intentions of the speaker/sender. I strongly believe that people have good hearts and make these comments in total sincerity.
However, we can always be more mindful of how our words and deeds are received and internalized. Too often, the unintended and unfortunate outcome is that an act meant to convey a message of support and comradery ends up making the recipient feel ‘less than’, and in turn, worse about their situation. Perhaps this is also a way to understand the fundamental commandment of ואהבת לרעך כמוך, to love your friend as yourself. To truly show love to another person, one must first view them as an equal. It needs to be כמוך – as you view yourself. The moment you project sympathy onto, feel badly for, and pity the recipient, your love is no longer כמוך.
Please note, I am not suggesting that we ignore or avoid that person in the supermarket or refrain from texting and calling people in turmoil—doing so would be equally hurtful, and would only serve to further their feelings of ‘otherness’ and isolation. I am also not suggesting that we gloss over opportunities to ask how a person is doing or offer practical help. Every person in the world, and especially those of us navigating emotional upheaval, wants to know that there are other people in the world who care both for and about them. That’s just it, though—people desperately want to know that others feel for them, not that they feel badly for them.
So, the next time you bump into someone in the grocery store who just lost a spouse, or their job, or is dealing with illness, you can simply say – in a normal tone and maybe even accompanied by a smile– a quick, ‘hello,’ or even, “I have been thinking about you,” and be prepared to be content with deflections or a short response. And, if it happens to be a rare moment where that person does want to engage in a more meaningful conversation, allow them to dictate its course, and just listen. In all likelihood, though, they simply want to pick up milk and get home, so our goal should be to allow them to do so without making them feel worse about themselves.
The bottom line is that the moment you stop feeling bad for me is the moment we can begin to connect. We are back to being equals, both trying to live life to the fullest, even while running on empty. The irony, in many ways, is that the moment you treat me like everything is OK is the moment I can begin to tell you why it’s not. Indeed, it is only when we stop looking down at someone that we can honestly see them eye-to-eye and love, care for, and regard them as we do ourselves.