GreaterMetroWest CARES, the Committee Addressing Resources for Seniors, is coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and brings together leaders from Greater MetroWest agencies to promote independence and support vitality among older adults. Throughout the year, Greater MetroWest CARES agencies have the opportunity to address critical eldercare issues in this column. This month’s article on how to be supportive of loved ones facing some of life’s most difficult challenges is presented by the Joint Chaplaincy Committee.
We’ve all said things with the best of intentions, but cringed when we thought about it afterwards. Or perhaps it’s only when we are suffering that we realize that expressions people commonly offer to lift the spirit can actually do the opposite. When we care, we want to offer support and “cheer people up.” However, in our attempts to deliver the power of positive thinking, it’s easy to miss how much our relationships can suffer with the subtle message that only the upbeat will do.
We can hardly help it. Our American and our Jewish psychological message of optimism and hope in the future is so deeply engrained, it’s sometimes hard to see when it is misdirected. Even Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s famous teaching reminds us: If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today, then what do you need tomorrow for? And you know how the song goes: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative…”
We Americans are a “positive” people — cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat; this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But it is more than a temperament; we’re taught that being positive is the key to getting success and prosperity. And it often is. But, at other times of life, it is hollow.
“You’ll have other children.”
“He’s in a better place.”
“There are other fish in the sea.”
“It’s a blessing.”
“You’ll fight this thing and bounce back in no time.”
“Give it that old college try.”
“You’re looking great.”
“You’ll live forever.”
All of these may be true — sometimes. However, anyone on the receiving end of such sentiments in the depths of pain can tell you how much these well-meaning statements can hurt.
The truth is that in moments of suffering or medical finality, they are all false. Offering false hope or empty optimism isn’t loving or supportive. It is undermining to both the person we are trying to “help” as well as to the relationships we care about.
What is worse, well-meaning but inappropriate statements often leave the person suffering feeling deprived of permission to feel what is real for that person in that moment, alone in his or her feelings or unable to acknowledge a fear, sadness, or even a profound truth. Being there for our loved ones means being able to be with them in their feelings when they’re down.
The truth is that moments when we can simply “be” with our loved ones in whatever they are feeling offer the opportunity for profound connection. At difficult times, being together without asking them to “look on the bright side” is a chance to learn about our loved one’s deepest hopes and fears, wishes, and regrets. In short, we can experience real intimacy and knowledge. The truth is that jumping into “positive mode” is the surest way to shut that down.
How might we do this? First and foremost: listen — shema. Acknowledge with your words and your eyes that you hear your loved ones, their concerns. Don’t add the word “but” followed by a solution or alternative perspective. Perhaps ask your relative or friend to expand on it rather than change the subject or offer a solution or alternative.
Just as important is not to be afraid of silence. Your very presence and willingness simply to listen is often the greatest affirmation of your caring and love. This is CO-(M)-passion. Rather than “religiosity” per se, people such as chaplains and others in the caring fields are trained to respond to these very human reactions, which is why our elderly, sick, and suffering accept and appreciate such care.
This may be a different way to relate but, when the status quo of life is overturned, different is in order.