Harriet Brown wrote this fascinating article in this week’s New York Times Health section. It’s about how we cope with other people’s crises, or more to the point, how others cope with ours. It was a real eye-opener for me, because I learned a lot about how I deal when people around me are in trouble, but it also shed light on some of the reactions we’ve experienced from other people. For example:
Awkwardness is a common reaction — not knowing what to say or do. Some people say nothing; others, in a rush to relieve the feelings of awkwardness, blurt out well-intentioned but thoughtless comments, like telling the parent of a child with cancer, “My grandmother went through this, so I understand.”
If you’ve dealt with infertility or loss, I know you’ve met these well-meaning people. “My sister tried for 10 years, then gave up and got pregnant.” You know the ones. But why do people do this? Here’s one explanation:
Feelings of vulnerability can lead to a kind of survivor’s guilt: People are grateful that the trauma didn’t happen to them, but they feel deeply ashamed of their reactions. Such emotional discomfort often leads them to avoid the family in crisis.
The author went on to explain that when her teenage daughter was hospitalized with anorexia, many of her friends disappeared, just at a time when she needed them most. Looking back, she realized that the friends who disappeared had daughters the same age as hers.
They could picture all too vividly the same thing happening to their children; they felt too much empathy rather than not enough.
Interesting. Is it possible that some of the people who say things that feel cruel are just putting up their own defense mechanisms to avoid facing something that could happen to them?
Brown concludes by saying:
Thinking back to my own years of crisis, I wondered why I’d focused on the friends who didn’t come through when so many others had.
David B. Adams, a psychologist in private practice in Atlanta adds:
“The human condition is that traumatic events occur, and the reality is that we are equipped to deal with them. The challenge that lies before us is quite often more important than the disappointment that surrounds us.”
We can’t control how those around us react to our crises, or how they help or hinder; all we can do is focus our energies on finding our own way through, and appreciate the people who are there for us.