April 30, 2018

The Gift of Witnessing Another’s Pain.

It’s an ordinary Saturday afternoon in a busy shopping mall. I park my car in the multi-story parking lot and start to walk toward the shops when a tsunami-style wave of sadness and loneliness hits me.

I try to keep it together and hold back the tears that are blurring my vision, but it’s no use. I can feel them like hot streams rolling down my cheeks.

I’m praying I don’t bump into anybody I know. I see a woman I don’t recognize walking toward me. She stops in front of me and asks if I’m okay. I say, “Um, yeah, I’m fine, fine.”

We both know this is not true.

She could nod her head and say okay and continue walking with her shopping bags. But she doesn’t.

Instead, she puts her arm around me and in a gentle voice asks what’s the matter. I don’t know her, but my gut tells me she’s genuine. It makes me feel vulnerable to be talking to a stranger about my feelings. But I also feel relieved that she’s willing to listen. There are many, including friends, who choose to believe I’m fine. It’s a lot easier.

I blurt out that I’m getting over the loss of my husband a few weeks earlier and that sometimes the grief hits me at the most inconvenient times. Like now, in this busy mall where there’s no place to hide.

We talk awhile, and then she tells me a story about her friend who lost his wife and two children. As so often happens in a small place like Ireland, I’m connected in some way to them and I’ve heard about their tragic deaths. His wife worked in the same financial services firm where my husband and I used to work. It was there that we’d met and fallen in love 12 years earlier.

She tells me how he’s put the broken pieces of his life back together. He’s married again and they’re expecting a baby. His first wife had killed their children and then taken her own life. My husband had also taken his life.

Hearing that this man has created a new life for himself and is able to trust again gives me something solid to hold onto. It inspires me to believe that I can create a better life.

We say goodbye and go our separate ways. I’m feeling lighter. A feeling of quiet optimism settles in my heart.

I reflect on our conversation and how honest and vulnerable it was. She gave me the gift of witnessing my pain. She also showed me how we lose out when we hide our true feelings behind “I’m fine.” Those oft-spoken words close us off from receiving genuine support.

Since then, I refuse to accept “I’m fine” as an answer when I ask somebody how they are. Because it tells me nothing.

Fine isn’t an emotion, it’s a cop-out.

We need to use emotional language—sad, lonely, happy, excited—if we want to let somebody inside our emotional world. The English language has a rich, emotional vocabulary. We are complex human beings with messy lives and fine is such a weak word—it conveys nothing about us. If you want to live your life from a place of authenticity, these questions on how to get real are a good place to start.

When we respond with a feeble “I’m fine,” what we’re really saying is: “I’m not willing to be seen in all my flaws and imperfections. I want to hide so I’ll tell you I’m fine and you’ll do the socially acceptable thing and pretend you believe me.”

It’s this hiding and pretending that spawns the current epidemic of loneliness and disconnection. With up to 43 percent of Americans experiencing chronic loneliness, isn’t it time we dropped “I’m fine” from our lexicon and were real with each other?

“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.” ~ Milan Kundera


Author: Miriam Reilly
Image: Benjamin Balázs/Flickr 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron

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Miriam Reilly