A Compassionate Listener

A colleague called me yesterday to ask a question about a grant.  "How are you?", she asked.  "I'm ok" (my usual response to this question).  "How are YOU?", I asked (Ted and I would both WAY rather have people tell us about them these days then to try to find the words to tell them how we are - how we are is much too complicated for small talk).

I really love this colleague.  She has always been someone that I have gotten along with well and connected to.  She is honest and real and I just like her.  Since losing Maxie, she has called and emailed many, many times just to check in with me.  She is a caring and compassionate person.

When I asked how she was doing, she paused.  She then asked me how I feel when someone who hasn't experienced tragedy and isn't experiencing anything life altering tells me that they are having a crappy day.  You know?  Just a regular sort of crappy day.  She apologized for asking, thinking it might offend me, but she just really wanted to know.

I wasn't offended.  Just the opposite.  It was very thoughtful of her to ask in my opinion.  I think it is a brilliant question and one that I almost can't believe I haven't really addressed here before.  It is something that I wonder about myself ALL of the time.  How come with some people there is no problem "too small" for me to listen and empathize with and with other people I literally want to plug my ears and scream "LALALALALALA"?

The truth is that it depends on who is complaining to me about their crappy day.  Just because I've been through a horrible loss doesn't mean that I can't remember a plain old crappy day - though one of the small "blessings" of this loss is that small things don't really stress me out all that much anymore.  I used to stay up all night worrying about something someone on my board said to me in a meeting, or whether an email I sent had the right tone, or when I would find the time to do certain important things.  I don't anymore.  My bad days really all center around not having Maxie here with me.

That being said, I know that people have less dramatic things that upset them.  I know that things that seem small to me can genuinely feel very big to the people experiencing them and I don't want to diminish those things or have a lack of compassion for them.  I try to keep perspective about the fact that most people I know have not lost a child and that their worries are probably a little less existential than mine.  I have compassion.

When someone I love, or even just like, who has shown us compassion, who has stuck by my side, with whom there is mutual respect, tells me that they are having a crappy day, I will generally empathize.  Crappy days are crappy days and they are part of life and everyone deserves to just feel crappy from time to time.

In the first year after Max died, I admit it - I just didn't have the stamina to listen to people talk about the "hardships" of normal life - job problems, breastfeeding issues, how hard it is to take care of multiple children, the stress of closing escrow on their new home.  I STILL would sell my soul to have these be my big problems, but I understand that they are real and that for the person experiencing them, life can feel chaotic.  It wasn't that I genuinely didn't care - it was just that the trauma had numbed me from feeling compassion for anything less than death.  There are times when I still feel like the person with the "problems" isn't being incredibly sensitive when choosing the "issues" that they cry about to me.  That's ok though, we all do that from time to time.

As my trauma has "normalized" - my heart has opened.  I want to be there for the people who have been there for me and for those who I love. 

That being said, I find myself having less tolerance for those people who haven't shown us any compassion, who told me from the beginning that "everything will be fine" because I "can have more children", who have dismissed our very real anguish because it wasn't comfortable for them.  They deserve to have their crappy days too but I just can't bring myself to be the compassionate listener.  They MUST be able to find a better ear to chew than mine.

I find that the people who are constantly complaining about the really "small things" and unable to appreciate the beauty in their own lives are always the same people who dismiss our loss.  They are the same people who've told me that losing Max was "ok", because now I have Mo.  They are the same people who never ask us how we are doing and have hardly even acknowledged that our child died.  They are the people who pretend that Mo is our first child and that Maxie never existed.  I don't have it in me to sit and compassionately listen to the complaints of the people who expected me to bounce back after my child died.  In fact, if it were up to me, I'd probably remove them from my life entirely.  Sadly, that isn't always an option.

I think if you talked to most of my friends.....the ones that are still in my life, you would hear that I am a compassionate listener.  I DO recognize that work can be super stressful and that for some people, so can having a bunch of people over for dinner.  

I believe I am a compassionate person but I do draw the line.  I think we all need to draw it somewhere.  Treat people as you want to be treated and those people who are deserving of your compassion and respect will treat you back the same way.  If you were one of those people for whom my child dying seemed like no big deal  - I can almost guarantee that most anything stressful happening in your life seems like no big deal to me.

To my caring, empathetic and thoughtful colleague - Please tell me about your crappy day and I promise to be a compassionate listener. 


GrahamForeverInMyHeart said...

I REALLY like this post. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

I have followed your blog for some time and am so sorry for everything you have gone through. It's not fair to you or to Maxie. It sounds like you have found a good balance for dealing with different kinds of people. I also wanted to share with you a realization that I VERY recently came to when an adult friend of mine died very suddenly, too soon, leaving behind her soul mate and a daughter. I was telling a friend how sad it was, and I noticed that my friend/colleague, was fairly nonchalant about it. I was surprised because she has been through a LOT of grief in her life. Her mother died suddenly when she was a little girl, her stepmom abused her, her father died suddenly weeks before her wedding, her sister died suddenly around the same time as her father, she was run over by a car....I expected that she would really be sympathetic to my friend's little girl, who just lost her mom. She wasn't uncaring, but she was very emotional either. And then I realized-- this is how she has learned to cope. And it has nothing to do with whether she cares or not. Her first job is to take care of herself and her heart and people who really care about her just need to accept this about her. Because she has already been through enough. I hope that people continue to give you the same understanding, and good for you for getting rid of the people who don't. Because you've already been through enough too!