Friday, November 6, 2015

Grow Antennae

Image by Phil Hilfiker

A story, which may appropriately belong to the files of “urban legends,” tells about a Philadelphia legal firm that sent flowers to an associate in Baltimore upon the opening of its new offices. Through some mix-up, the ribbon that bedecked the floral piece read, “Deepest Sympathy.”

When the florist was informed of her mistake, she let out a cry of alarm. “Good grief! Then the flowers that went to the funeral said, “Congratulations on Your New Location”!

It is difficult enough to offer comfort without mixing up the sentiment. So difficult, in fact, that many people simply don’t know what to say to someone who has just unburdened grief or emotional pain. Not unlike the new clergyman who, when a distressed young woman confided that she was pregnant, blurted out, “Are you sure it’s yours?”

Too often, we want to help, but find that our attempts to offer comfort, solace or hope fall short of the mark. But there is something we CAN say to those who hurt that can be helpful and comforting.

One man, whose grandson died accidentally, found genuine comfort when he shared his pain with friends shortly after the tragedy. Of all the well-meaning words of support, two statements helped to sustain and comfort him through the grief more than the rest. They were: “Thank you for sharing your pain,” and “I grieve with you.” After hearing those words, he no longer felt alone in his suffering. He felt as if his friends embraced his grief. He felt better.

“Thank you for sharing your pain” is an honest acknowledgment of another’s suffering. It also expresses an appreciation for the effort it takes a wounded soul to open her emotional wounds to others.

“I grieve with you” is an expression of empathy. It is a way of saying that I am willing to share some of your pain, even for a time.

We can’t fix it. We shouldn't try to offer advice. And we may never know how someone feels who is hurting in a way we have never experienced. But we can give some comfort.

I think James Angell, former president of the University of Michigan, got it right when he was asked the secret of his success. “The secret of success?” he replied. “Grow antennae, not horns.”

-- Steve Goodier

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