Overt pain makes people do weird things.
When we know someone is in pain we can act really really dumb. Sometimes we try to fix it (see here for my thoughts on fixing people pain). Sometimes we try to bring meaning to it (again see here for my thoughts (for those of you not clicking, my thoughts are not so positive on these two options)).
The third thing that often happens is that the person in pain become, to us, defined by their pain. Like in a bad movie when the friend who just lost someone walks towards their friends all talking in a circle. As he approaches the whole group being to shh each other and frantically stop talking about him. Then we he enters the conversation everyone smiles super weirdly at him.
You following with me? It’s as if they cease to be a whole person and are simply their condition.
It’s when every time you see a friend it’s the first, and often only, question about them and their life you ask. Or it’s the one topic you awkwardly avoid. They become their pain, no longer a person with depth or complexity but “that’s they guy with cancer” or “his dad just died.”
It happened to me with some relationships. After my father passed away people didn’t know how to ‘handle’ me. It was all weird and awkward. The authentic relationship was gone. Some of it was their own discomfort with my experience. They couldn’t understand what it was like and didn’t know how to talk to me anymore. It’s was all weird small talk like we’d never meet before or it was like some terrible therapy session every time.
Unfortunately they never said “hey, I feel super weird. I don’t know what to say and I feel like I should say something but… I dunno. I just want to love you and be here for you.”
Honesty and being vulnerable.
We lost for a period of time the space and opportunity to be real, for me to share if I was hurting and the space for me to not share and carry on as friends if I didn’t want to.
It’s a strikingly hard balance to find. Trying to show the appropriate care and love while not minimizing or over doing the situation.
Couple ideas for those you connect with in pain.
Maybe not a great idea to start every conversation with that over caring, intense face and the “how are you really doing?” question. Let it be organic and natural. Don’t run from the topic if it comes up but don’t push it as the start EVERY SINGLE TIME. Leave space for the conversation if they want and if they don’t that’s ok too.
Be honest that you want to care and aren’t sure how. Be honest that you’re not sure how to or if you should bring up their pain but you’re willing to talk if they want. Be open and vulnerable about your own awkwardness because you want to help and love them but want to do so in a way that works for them.
And maybe that’s it right there. Make it about them. Are you feeding your need to know and curiosity or are you honestly trying to love them?
Because if you’re trying to love them, like in any good relationships, open and honest communication is a great staring point.