Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Suffering of Others

Part of learning the art of suffering (which I've been taking remedial classes in) is practicing the art of witnessing the suffering of others, which can be just as challenging.

Based on my experiences after my mother's suicide *, I believe that the most helpful thing a comforter can do is
show up,
shut up,
and (depending on the person) touch.

The least helpful thing people did was to interpret my experience for me, offering explanations or advice, unsolicited.

One friend wrote a condolence letter telling me about a philosophy paper he'd written in college proving that suicide was a "morally neutral act."
Another told me that many people kill themselves at winter solstice, as my mother did, and so I should take comfort in the thought that she was traveling with other souls.

While I felt more assaulted than comforted by these well-meaning people at the time,
I understand this reaction perfectly, because I do it myself:
in the face of someone else's suffering, I want to explain it away, make it make sense.
Which one can't, and which it doesn't.

And I want to do that not only to relieve their suffering, but, maybe even more, to relieve mine--my discomfort, my sense of helplessness.

The suffering of others calls us to learn to comfort like an animal,
and that bucks everything my U.S. culture advises, which is to call up the Marines to attack suffering.

LEFT: "Chimpanzee Comforting Crying Child," by John Drysdale

The Jewish traditions around sitting shivah, the seven-day mourning period after a death, make sense to me:
on the first day of mourning, you, the comforter, come in and you say nothing.
You let the mourner initiate talking, or not.
The idea is you are not supposed to try to cheer mourners up, but to give due weight to grief.

(Judaism is a practical, life-oriented religion, and after a year, the mourner is supposed to get on with life.
I see the sense in this too: We don't want to get trapped in an endless Ken Russell drama.
Of course, this only applies to "normal" grief, not extreme ongoing suffering. The idea of telling someone to snap out of it or buck up in those cases is another form of assault.
Again, the key is to listen.)

There came a time when I wanted to talk about the whys and wherefores of suicide,
but I needed it to be on my own time, with people I chose.
I was pleased to read, via RR, Jack Kornfield's Buddhist take on offering comfort. He says much the same thing.

From Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: An Interview with Jack Kornfield, by Elisha Goldstein. JK is an American Buddhist teacher and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from a person who was experiencing deep emotional suffering in their life right now, what advice or suggestions would you give them?

Jack: "Very little advice to start with.

"I believe the most important thing I can do is to be fully present as I sit with them and not to try and advise them.

"To sit and be present, even to hold their hand or, if they were not open to it, hold them in my heart and let my own experience resonate with theirs.
To bring myself to their experience with as much compassion and care and perspective and deep breath and love as I could.

"To start with words I’d be curious,
what is your suffering,
and what are your tears and anguish and trauma?

"I’d want to know and not impose any advice, without first clearly hearing what they knew and where they were and what they were looking for.

"And then perhaps from this shared capacity to be present I’d want to communicate a deep trust that we can open to it all and move through the experience of suffering.

"I’d want them to know that their experience is part of their humanity,
part of the difficulty and the gift of human incarnation and we are all called upon to bear our sorrows
as well as our joys, and that we can bear them and they’re not the end of the story.

"That our sufferings don’t define us,
and we don’t have to be so loyal to our suffering
that we don’t see that there is a greater mysterious majestic dance that we’re a part of so that the communication of trust as well as the capacity to be present is there.

"Because it is as William Blake says that in the minute particulars that goodness is transmitted,
not in the general or the ideological, but actually in the presence itself."

[end of Jack Kornfield quote]

Last night bink and I were driving home from the Monday Brit Noir film (It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947).
I was burbling on about how thrilled I am that I've met the guy who arranges these screenings of old films,
and that that very evening when I'd suggested to him a William Shatner film fest,
he'd replied that he was already working on getting Shatner's Kingdom of the Spiders!

And in my unalloyed delight it came to me:
I am fine.
Fine, fine, fine.
So, it took way more than a year to recover fully, if that's the right word, but here I am.
Burbling about Bill.

Life is a strong force.
* If you want it, an earlier post provides some of my story's background: "After My Mother Killed Herself".


For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:
"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."
Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.


deanna said...

Thanks for this. I need the reminder, because I rarely face someone who is deeply suffering, and I haven't suffered many times myself. We're forgetful creatures. But instinct like that chimpanzee's does take over at times in a good way. Although the baby there may have been terrified by the "comforter." Just as I was, a bit, by the photos in your last post. ;o)

I'm so glad you are fine. :o)

ArtSparker said...

Our sufferings don't define us -

Maybe that is where the presumption lies in advice, that the "helper" wants to forcefully remove the badness, as if the fact the person was suffering was not a transitional state, and of course as if they were supposed to be having other feelings.

Margaret said...

This is so very, very true.

Fresca said...

DEANNA: Ha! It crossed my mind too that the chimp was scaring the child! I just have to take it on faith, based on the photographer's other work of humans and animals interacting lovingly, that the chimp isn't in fact feeling the kid to see if there's any candy in its pockets!
: )

Sorry about the scary photos yesterday. I hope this rights the balance.

I'm glad I'm fine too--I have been, mostly, for a couple years or more, but last night the way I was so TOTALLY happy about "Kingdom of the Spiders" just made me laugh to see how very, very back to life I am.

ARTSPARKER: That was my favorite line: "Our sufferings don't define us."
Yes, the comforter may indeed be seeing the situation as rigid---as you warn against--when, in fact, it is fluid.

MARGARET: I assume you mean it is true that we should have a Bill Film Fest?! : )
No, I know--thanks.
(But of course we should.)

femminismo said...

This is too incredible. I just updated my Bless What There Is blogspot and decided today to post something on a prayer for those who mourn. I posted a Jewish prayer and a photo of two Israelis at a graveside. What a coincidence! - J. (so happy you are growing more at peace)

The Crow said...

In my divorce care class, our instructor said it would take at least three years before we woke up from the numbness, the shock of the loss. My mother died in '71, and I seem to remember that tha't how long it took to begin the proper mourning and moving beyond.

Interesting timetable, grief has, isn't it?

Glad that you are back to life.

bink said...

I like the idea that we don't have to be loyal to our suffering.

deanna said...

Love the (scary) movie poster! We'll have to look for that one here.

Jennifer said...

Dealing with the suffering of those we care about is so difficult. Not as difficult as the suffering itself, of course. I had a cat who was very aloof, very distant, but when I cried she would make these horrible distressed sounds and bat at me: "Stop it! You're upsetting ME!" It always made me laugh and took me out of myself a little bit.

Comforting people across the Internet is extra-hard, because you lose that essential fallback of touching. I'm not a touch-oriented sort of person, but certainly there are times when nothing works as clearly to say "I'm here, I'm just here for you, focused on you." Focused silence on the phone or a chat window doesn't cut it. So I think we squirt advice like squid ink, to make our presence known and give us something to hide in at the same time. And yet NO ONE enjoys being given advice when they're suffering, so it seems an unfortunate failure of empathy--we advise because we're focused on ourselves, on ourselves doing something and being the center of the story again. It's hard to sit still and listen and hold.

Fresca said...

FMNSMO: The Kaddish! That was important to me after my mother died, though we are not Jewish, it's such an ancient prayer, it feels universal...
Thank you for that.
(I don't see your daily prayer blog on your profile, though.)

CROW: Hey, that's interesting.
My experience is that Americans seem to expect one another to get over death pretty fast--one friend was surprised that I was still upset three MONTHS later-- but we tend to understand that divorce takes longer.

Of course, circumstances vary so much, there's no strict timeline, but I am in favor of giving grief plenty of space and air and healing balm, like a wound.

BINK: I know! Isn't that a great phrase? We don't have to be so loyal to our suffering.
It really caught me up and made me see sometimes I have been.

DEANNA: I hear "Kingdom of the Spiders" is a good bad movie. : ) It's on DVD, but I'd far rather watch it with a few dozen screaming Shatner fans.

JEN: That's true. it's harder to offer comfort when there's no physical presence. Even if you don't touch a person with your hand, if you're in their presence, your eyes touch, your breath mingles, your body heat meets...
It all says so much, which is impossible to reproduce in words.

Your cat cracks me up, I can so relate: Stop upsetting ME!
Humor is another comfort, in its time.

Empathy FAIL. : )
Yeah, that's it---it's hard to sit still and empathize when we want to rush in and alleviate.
I'm not good at it either, which is one reason I write about it every so often.

Thanks, everybody, for these good thoughts.

momo said...

I left a comment yesterday (I thought) but it didn't show up. internet hugs are sometimes like this (((((fresca)))))
and I'm sending you one now.

Margaret said...




Translation: (Though I daresay you get the idea)

That would be rather cool.

That film fest should honestly happen. It would be awesome beyond comprehension.

Fresca said...

Thanks, MOMO.

MARGARET: Fricken' A, man!
Dude! You rock!
Indeed, that would be rather pleasant, would it not?