The Mistake I Made With My Grieving Friend

A good friend of mine lost her dad some years back. I found her sitting alone on a bench outside our workplace, not moving, just staring at the horizon. She was absolutely distraught and I didn’t know what to say to her. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable. So, I started talking about how I grew up without a father. I told her that my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was only 9 months old and I’d always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I just wanted her to realize that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and could understand how she felt.

But after I related this story, my friend looked at me and snapped, “Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad, and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.”

I was stunned and mortified. My immediate reaction was to plead my case. “No, no, no,” I said, “that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just meant that I know how you feel.” And she answered, “No, Celeste, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.”

She walked away and I stood there helplessly, watching her go and feeling like a jerk. I had totally failed my friend. I had wanted to comfort her, and instead, I’d made her feel worse. At that point, I still felt she misunderstood me. I thought she was in a fragile state and had lashed out at me unfairly when I was only trying to help.

But the truth is, she didn’t misunderstand me at all. She understood what was happening perhaps better than I did. When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself.

I may have been trying to empathize, at least on a conscious level, but what I really did was draw focus away from her anguish and turn the attention to me. She wanted to talk to me about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was, so I could fully appreciate the magnitude of her loss. Instead, I asked her to stop for a moment and listen to my story about my dad’s tragic death.

From that day forward, I started to notice how often I responded to stories of loss and struggle with stories of my own experiences. My son would tell me about clashing with a kid in Boy Scouts, and I would talk about a girl I fell out with in college. When a co-worker got laid off, I told her about how much I struggled to find a job after I had been laid off years earlier. But when I began to pay a little more attention to how people responded to my attempts to empathize, I realized the effect of sharing my experiences was never as I intended. What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me and acknowledge me.

Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious. Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and co-workers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.” Derber describes two kinds of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment. Here is a simple illustration:

Shift Response
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed.

Support Response
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Why? What do you have to get done?

Here’s another example:

Shift Response
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Me too. These things are falling apart.

Support Response
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Oh yeah? What kind are you thinking about?

Shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism. They help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself. But a support response encourages the other person to continue their story. These days, I try to be more aware of my instinct to share stories and talk about myself. I try to ask questions that encourage the other person to continue. I’ve also made a conscious effort to listen more and talk less.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a friend of mine who was going through a divorce. We spent almost 40 minutes on the phone, and I barely said a word. At the end of our call, she said, “Thank you for your advice. You’ve really helped me work some things out.” The truth is, I hadn’t actually offered any advice; most of what I said was a version of “That sounds tough. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” She didn’t need advice or stories from me. She just needed to be heard. The author of We Need to Talk reveals how she learned to help — and not help — a friend with loss. This excerpt was taken from We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, by Celeste Headlee. Headlee is the host of the daily news show On Second Thought on Georgia Public Radio. Photo: Simone Golob/Getty Images. Via Huffpost Celeste HeadleeOprah.com

xxxx,

Janice

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10 Things That Changed Me After the Death of a Parent

I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you to lose a parent. It is a larger blow in adulthood I believe, because you are at the point where you are actually friends with your mother or father. Their wisdom has finally sunk in and you know that all of the shit you rolled your eyes at as a teenager really was done out of love and probably saved your life a time or two.

I lost both of mine two years apart; my mother much unexpected and my father rather quickly after a cancer diagnosis. My mom was the one person who could see into my soul and could call me out in the most effective way. She taught me what humanity, empathy and generosity means. My father was the sarcastic realist in the house and one of the most forgiving people I have ever met. If you wanted it straight, with zero bullshit; just go ask my dad.

Grief runs its course and it comes in stages, but I was not prepared for it to never fully go away.

1 My phone is never more than 1 foot away from me at bedtime, because the last time I did that I missed the call that my mother died.

2 The very thought of my mother’s death, at times, made me physically ill for about six months after she died. I literally vomited.

3 Their deaths have at times ripped the remainder of our family apart. I did my best to honor their wishes and sometimes that made me the bad guy. The burden of that was immense, but I understood why I was chosen. It made me stronger as a person, so for that I am grateful.

4 I’m pissed that my son didn’t get to experience them as grandparents. I watched it five times before his birth and I feel robbed. He would have adored them and they him.

5 I would not trade my time with them for anything, but sometimes I think it would have been easier had you died when I was very young. The memories would be less.

6 Don’t bitch about your parents in front of me. You will get an earful about gratitude and appreciation. As a “Dead Parents Club” member, I would take your place in a heartbeat, so shut your mouth. Get some perspective on how truly fleeting life is.

7 It’s like being a widow — a “club” you never wanted to join. Where do I return this unwanted membership, please?

8 Other club members are really the only people who can truly understand what it does to a person. They just get it. There is no other way to explain it.

9 Life does go on, but there will be times even years later, you will still break down like it happened yesterday.

10 When you see your friends or even strangers with their mom or dad, you will sometimes be jealous. Envious of the lunch date they have. Downright pissed that your mom can’t plan your baby shower. Big life events are never ever the same again.

Lisa Schmidt is a Dating and Relationship coach in Detroit and the author of her own blog. She streams regularly on Periscope and is contributor for several online publications. Read via Huffpost. Relationship questions can also be sent to her directly Ask Lisa Here

xxx,

Janice