For Those Who Don’t Know What to Do: I Feel You.

Since publishing this blog (last night), so many people have contacted me to say that they really connect with what I’m writing about, and relate to my experience. The amount of encouragement and support in the last 24 hours has been amazing and overwhelming, in fact. I have heard many different versions of “I cry all the time, thank you for talking about this.”

But I also want to reach out to readers who don’t share my penchant for crying multiple times a day, who aren’t comfortable with tears, and who perhaps are at a loss or feel uncomfortable when they see that someone is visibly sad. Does this sound like you? I want to reach out to these readers because in many ways, I used to be you.

Allow me a brief anecdote. I was raised by an introverted mother who was extremely private about her feelings and emotions. I watched her witness people in emotional distress, and react by respecting their privacy and dignity, and giving them space. Because this was the model I grew up with, it is how I learned to react when I found myself in similar situations. Then one day, in my early twenties, before I became an emotional ninja, I was at a sing-along screening of West Side Story with a group of friends from college. One of our friends had recently lost her longtime boyfriend to a tragic accident, and was still reeling from it. I was seated next to her, and during the scene when (SPOILER ALERT) Maria is weeping over Tony’s dead body, I felt her begin to shake, and heard her sniffle, and knew that she was crying. And what did I do?

I froze. I thought “I have never experienced anything like what she’s going through right now, so I won’t intrude on her emotions or insult her experience by trying to give comfort,” and I pretended like it wasn’t happening. So I just sat there, knowing she was crying and ignoring it, for the remainder of the movie. And then when the movie finished and the lights came up, I turned to her and made chit-chat and ignored her swollen and tear-stained face, and made my way out to the parking lot.

And then driving home I felt super shitty about what I’d done.

At this point, I realized “I don’t think that was the right way to handle that situation, I don’t like how I reacted.” But I didn’t have any frame of reference for any other way to handle that situation. I felt stuck and confused.

Fast forward a couple of years to a workshop I attended. One of the women (C) who was leading the workshop had just lost a parent, and was still raw and emotional. At one point while presenting during the first day, she was triggered and began to cry. Hard. The other woman leading the workshop (E) wordlessly took over, and another woman (A) who was there to help out took the grieving C outside into the hallway. While E gracefully took over the presentation, we could hear C’s cries in the hallway intensify into sobs, and then wails. Eventually the women moved farther away, and we could no longer hear C’s distress. Then, a little while later, C and A came back to the room, dripping wet, covered in mud, laughing and hugging. When C had began wailing, A had led her outside and into a rainstorm, taken their shoes and socks off, and run with her through a muddy field. C ran through the rain, wailing and crying, until the wave of grief receded, and she was done. And when she was finished, A brought her back to the workshop.

“Holy shit,” I thought “that is how I want to be. That is the kind of friend I want to be. That is how I’d like to be able to react when someone near me is going through some deep shit, whether I’ve been through it myself or not.” What I’d just witnessed was someone being deeply present with another person’s intense grief, seeing it, validating it, being with it, and giving it space to be.

It was a clear turning point in my life towards becoming a more present, open, and available friend person. It was also the first moment in my adult life when I began to realize that personalities are not fixed, and that we can make changes in our behavior to better reflect our values and beliefs. But for most of us, before we can do that, we need see examples of the kind of person we wish to become.

If you find yourself struggling or feeling incredibly uncomfortable in the face of others’ sadness, grief, and suffering, I hope to be able to offer understanding, support, and practical advice. And don’t worry, you certainly don’t need to share my desire to be able to run screaming through a rainstorm with a wailing woman to be able to help someone you care about when they’re upset. You can just learn a few simple questions and statements that are very helpful, and keep it simple as that. Check out my upcoming piece on Dos and Don’ts for when someone in your vicinity is having a rough time, or read my personal anecdotes as a way to begin to understand what others are experiencing when they’re hearing bad news, venting after a rough day, or just sobbing in the cheese aisle at the Berkeley Bowl.

For those of you who feel awkward, uncomfortable, or confused when someone is crying: I see you. I feel you. I used to be you. And it’s okay. We’re all in it together.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

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