The days and weeks following my husband's traumatic brain injury were filled with messages, prayers, advice, and thoughtful condolences from the many friends, family, and strangers who had heard of his awful attack. Overwhelmed with shock in those early days, it was hard to make sense of all that people had to say, although I certainly appreciated each and every outreach of kindness.
It's challenging to know what to say when an event takes place that is beyond reasoning, especially when it involves a tremendous amount of suffering. In the past, I've been one to recoil in these situations, never wanting to offend someone with a message that might be construed as trite or cliché. I've always believed that in instances of real pain, those affected deserve a real message, something that digs deeper than, “You're amazing!” or “This too will pass.”
And while I've rarely found myself offended by someone else's attempt to communicate empathy in these situations, I have often felt that the words we offer to one another in times of suffering fail to get at the heart of the experience. Maybe that's because so many of the phrases and messages we've been taught to deliver carry the unintentional consequence of closing a conversation instead of opening it. For example, “I'm sorry for your loss,” is certainly a valid statement, but it doesn't really invite the person who's grieving to share the reality of their emotional experience. Often it is met instead with a brief, “Thank you.”
In the past month, I've found myself in multiple situations in which I've wanted to offer a consoling thought to a person struggling with something difficult in his/her life. And even though I have first-hand experience of being on the other side of this type of conversation, I still find myself anxious and flailing as I try to offer words of meaning. As a writer, this has caused a tenuous relationship with language. After all, what good are words if they're not available when I need them most?
Last week I had the honor of speaking at a conference for survivors and caregivers of traumatic brain injury. After my speech I was approached by many people who were eager to tell me about their own journey with brain injury. At the risk of using another cliché, I was truly blown away by their stories. I met survivors of aneurisms, car wrecks, swimming accidents, and even a woman who suffered a TBI following a pharmaceutical accident involving a drug she was incorrectly prescribed. Each had suffered unfathomable pain and was trying with great effort to create a new path in life. I felt deep awe for these impressive people. No one on the outside could possibly imagine the things with which they were contending. Nervous about responding with any kind of statement that would minimize their great struggle, I found myself simply offering, “You've been through so much. What is life like today?”
And from that short question came an outpouring of truth. Very few folks that I talked to felt obliged to give the perfunctory answer of, “Oh, things are getting better.” Instead, their answers were often wordless – tears, followed by a deep sigh, and then a very genuine exchange of emotion. As I listened, I tried to shut off the part of my brain that insisted on formulating a response, and just allowed myself to be a quiet participant in the moment. A hug, a handhold, and eye contact – these nonverbal exchanges seemed more appropriate than words.
Language is a beautiful tool, something that has allowed us to forge relationships and articulate many big ideas in life, but it is not all encompassing. There are some moments, some events in the world that transcend language, and it's important that we resist the urge to constantly fit our experiences into the limited box that language provides. As I've learned during my husband's struggle with aphasia, words are important, but they are not our sole form of communication. It is our own fear of discomfort and sadness that encourages us to act resolutely in tough situations, but the simple act of acknowledging that there are no words can be a beautiful display of empathy in itself. After all, sharing in someone's pain does not mean fixing it, making sense of it, or covering it with platitudes. Struggle is an inevitable part of being human, so let us be willing to offer a sincere connection to let people know they are not alone in this experience.