“My father has cancer,” your distraught friend tells you. How do you respond? If you’re like a lot of other people, you say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Then you might add, “That’s how my mother died; I know how you feel.” Or, “That’s terrible! My friend’s husband just died of a heart attack.” Our well-meaning attempts at providing empathy can fall far short when we interject our own experiences into someone else’s pain and grief.
Really, we have no idea how other people feel in their painful experiences. Although we are trying to provide comfort, when we have what I call “parallel pain” we never intersect with that hurting person in a helpful, meaningful way. We make the hurting person actually work to provide reciprocal comfort, when they have no energy to do so.
One reason we may begin talking about our own experiences when another is openly grieving in front of us is the discomfort this brings up in us. We resort to examples about ourselves because we are most comfortable with this subject matter. This has the unintended effect of drawing our attention to ourselves and taking it away from the anguishing person.
Notice, then, your patterns: when someone shares a distressing situation with you, listen to your response. If your spouse tells you about their hard day at work, do you respond with the details of your own stressful day? When your brother tells you that he is going to have to put his beloved pet down, do you ask if he’s planning to get another one? When a friend tells you about being fired from a job, do you tell her about your own struggle finding a position five years ago?
What others really need from you is to hear them. Instead of subconsciously shifting the conversation to yourself, and subtly asking the grieving person to pay attention to you, support the person with follow up statements or reflections that are fully about them and their situation. “I’m so worried about my brother’s drinking” would best be responded to with, “Tell me more” or “That must be really scary.” Leave it right there, and you’ve provided a great shoulder to lean on.