The Tricky Business of Lending Support

Have you ever had a thought banging around in your head, and you’ve considered writing about it, but it has never felt like the right time. And then a few things happen, all at once, all related to that original thought that’s making dents in the sides of your skull, and you realize that you basically HAVE to write about it, even if you don’t really want to?

That’s what just happened to me.

The problem is, I’m still not exactly sure what I want to say, and more importantly, I’m not at all sure how to say it. So I’m sorry if this post is all over the place, making little and less sense. I shall endeavor to construct a cohesive narrative, we shall see if I succeed.

I guess, I should start at the beginning, because the beginning is a very good place to start.

So this train of thought left the station after my breastfeeding disaster subsided and I started processing all that had happened in the weeks leading up to my hospitalization, my decision to quit breastfeeding and then my eventual compromise of exclusive pumping. During that whole ordeal, I was surrounded by friends and family (and gentle blog readers!) supporting me through my struggle, assuring me that I could stop breastfeeding and still be a good mother. I was very thankful to know that I wouldn’t be judged for giving up breastfeeding and giving my baby formula. I absolutely believe that support allowed me to make the best choice for myself and my child.

Except the were moments where I felt people were so keen on me quitting that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be supported if I decided to keep breastfeeding, despite all our struggles. I understood where everyone was coming from. I knew they saw me putting pressure on myself to keep going, and they wanted me to know that it was okay to stop, and so they focused their support on helping me see that stopping was a viable option. But sometimes I wondered if they supported my choice to quit breastfeeding, at the expense of supporting me in making the choice that I wanted.

Luckily I had lived enough, by that point in my life, that I understood what was going on, and ultimately I knew, deep in my heart, that my friends and family would support me no matter what I chose. I also recognized that in the thick of it, even I was unsure of what I wanted people to say. And I do believe that knowing I could quit helped me to find, and have the confidence to follow, the path I eventually took. Still, I spent a lot of time afterward, wondering if it were even possible to support me equally in either path, to communicate that it would be fine if I kept breastfeeding and it would be fine if I quit to formula feed. Was there really anything anyone could have said to make me feel 100% supported, no matter what I chose?

As this was rattling around in my head, I read Loribeth’s post–and the article it linked to–exploring whether saying, “I can’t imagine,” is an empathetic or dismissive way to respond to someone’s grief. I will admit that I have fallen back on “I can’t imagine” frequently, believing it an adequate way of validating one’s suffering. If I have never experienced a similar tragedy, the last thing I want to do is presume to understand the sorrow of those who have, and so I assure them that I can’t even imagine how hard it must be. I believed this to be respectful of the difficult work they are doing working through their grief, living with it every day.

What I never even considered was that by saying, “I can’t imagine” I was actually distancing myself from them and making them feel more alone. In my attempt to validate their feelings I was actually excusing myself from understanding, or at least they might believe that was what I was doing. As an empathetic person, I of course do try to understand how hard it is to suffer a specific loss, but I also believe that by not having lived it myself, I can’t really know what it’s like. I guess I assumed that reverence was more important that recognition. Or maybe I just believe recognition to be impossible, so I fell back on reverence. Perhaps I was wrong, either way.

This discussion (the comments on that post are very enlightening) rekindled a conversation I’ve been having with myself for several years, about the differences between pity, sympathy and empathy. While no one wants another person’s pity, there are some who don’t even want their sympathy and it seems that everyone is hoping for empathy, but I wonder what each one actually looks like, and if one person’s perceived sympathy is another person’s perceived empathy (and maybe even a third person’s perceived pity?) And if that’s so, how can we be asked to lend support, when we can never be sure that we’re doing it in the right way.

I think at this point, I don’t believe there is a right way. Not only is there no one way to manage grief that can be prescribed to all grievers, I doubt any one person who is grieving knows exactly what will alleviate their suffering. It changes from day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute. What might have been a salve to the soul one moment, might tear open a scab the next.

I have experienced this myself and I am surprised that even I can’t seem to decide what I want from my loved ones when it comes to processing my perceived losses post-secondary infertility. Generally I still closely identify with the struggle we endured before welcoming our son and I appreciate when that struggle is recognized, even now. But there are moments when my mother mentions, for the umpteenth time, that she still can’t believe how lucky we are to have our son, and I just want her to stop bringing it up, because it dredges up all these feelings of guilt that maybe I take him for granted, or anxiety that maybe we weren’t really meant to have him at all, that his presence is some cosmic mistake that has so far been overlooked but may some day be noticed, and rectified. Even as I’m processing those emotions, though, I feel confused, because I know how important it can feel for our struggle to be recognized and validated, and yet when my mother does it, I bristle. How can I expect other people to know what to do or say, when I can’t figure it out myself?

So all of this has been swirling around in my head of late, and then Cristy’s post popped up in my reader and I was delighted to read her take on many of these same themes. Reading her story of the breastfeeding advice gone awry hit especially close to home and just reiterated the fact that it can be so hard to support people through these experiences because a person’s unresolved grief and guilt can make it impossible for them to understand what we’re trying to say.

Now I’m left with all these questions, and no answers, and I’m no longer sure how to reach out and show support. My cousin just emailed me and told me that her son is having trouble breastfeeding and she isn’t sure what she should do. She wanted to know more about my experience and how I came to pump exclusively. Of course this brought up all sorts of difficult emotions, as I’m still processing my grief and feelings of failure about our breastfeeding experience almost three months after I quit trying to make it work. In the end, even after I was able to put those feelings aside, I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to assure her that no matter what she chose it would be the right choice. I mean, it’s that cognitive dissonance all over again: How can two totally conflicting decisions be equally correct? And yet I absolutely believe that to be true, I absolutely believe that she’d be making the right choice if she chose to keep breastfeeding, or pump exclusively or formula feed. And I tried to convey that–while also convey the feeling of loss I still feel–I really did. I’m just not sure that she will read the same words I wrote.

Do you ever find it difficult to show support? Do you ever feel you’re not even sure how you want others to support you?

10 responses

  1. To your questions: Yes and Yes. I’ve also leaned on the “I can’t imagine”…for the same reasons as you…because I don’t want to presume to understand someone’s pain, when I haven’t experienced their particular loss. And to be honest, I’ve seen and heard so many conflicting answers to the “what IS the right thing to say” question. The answer that comforts one may be salt in the wound to another. And like you said, it changes from day to day, so maybe our job as supporters is to have a thick skin, and realize that whatever we say will likely be wrong, but we just have to continue to be there, and keep trying.
    Re: your experience with breastfeeding, and the advice you got…I tend to offer comfort and emotional support the way I would offer physical support to someone who is having trouble walking—help support the weaker side, so they can use the stronger side to move forward. To me breastfeeding is by far the stronger side in our society in general, and it seemed the much stronger side for you personally, because you showed tremendous perseverance and determination despite your struggles. So I came to help support the weaker side—that its OK to quit. If I knew that you were feeling any kind of pressure to quit, I’d probably come and defend your right to continue. In some ways, the fact that I would offer conflicting advice may make it all some worthless, but in this situation, all options (breastfeed, formula feed, pump exclusively) are completely valid and the goal is to make sure women realize that.
    Sorry for the rambling, hopefully some of that made sense. Great post, its a very tough issue and important to think and talk about.

  2. I am beyond frustrated with “I can’t even imagine” lately because I hear it so much and because it keeps rubbing me the wrong way. My friend is dying and dying young and slowly and that’s awful. It’s awful for her, her family, her friends, all of us in slightly different yet similar ways: there’s a whole in our lives that’s forming and we are grieving at some rate as things move on. But to hear from people of a similar age that “I can’t even imagine” really strikes me as them being unimaginative OR reminds me that I may be more morbid that many people around me (these rub me the wrong way equally). Since we first considered children I’ve imagined what it would be like to be in that spot so while the experience isn’t one I have had, I can very viscerally imagine it. Likewise a friend lost her twins at 22 weeks and while I don’t know what her experience is like, I can imagine it. I spent months and months imagining it, then imagining losing a pregnancy later than 22 weeks, right up until there was a screaming baby in the room.

    On offering support specifically around breastfeeding, I’d say that I’m with Ana in that you seemed very strongly committed to one path and like you weren’t considering any others for whatever set of reasons, so I attempted to offer support both for you and for the options you weren’t as interested in because of guilt (I think that’s how you described it? I have bad pharmacy school brain). I feel like sometimes people get locked into one way of thinking and forget other options exist and that they’d be supported in those other options too. A friend was unhappy with her job and her first concern was that they’d lose the house if she changed jobs to one that paid less but was also less miserable, so I reminded her that they didn’t need the house, just a place to live. It seemed to help at the time to enable her to get out of the one-track thinking “must save house” and into other options like selling the house or renting it out or whatever.

    • Not sure you will ever see this, but I have a very honest question. Would it be better to say “I CAN imagine, that must be so hard”…because usually, when I default to “I can’t imagine” (and I’m trying really hard not to fall back on that), its a lie. I have an exceptionally vivid imagination and I’m a big worrier and I CAN imagine, and its horrible, but I don’t want to sound like I know exactly what the other person is going through because I don’t have any personal experience. In fact, once I said “I can imagine how hard that must be for you” and I got a quite cold “Has it happened to you? No? Than you can’t possibly know”.

      • I think it’s better, yeah. “I can imagine that’s awful” is a lot better in my view than pretending you can’t imagine. I’m ok with “I can only imagine” too. And for the “you can’t possibly know” responders, I’d say “Oh, of course I don’t know. I can imagine it and that’s it, but isn’t it better that I have an idea of the experience rather than you being totally alone?” But then I’m pretty… blunt and not that overly nice. If I say anything, then I say what I’m going to say.

  3. I used to use “I can’t imagine” a lot, until another blogger pointed out that sometimes it makes people feel worse. It’s emphasizing the fact that you have never been in that particular situation, so the listener feels more lonely/pathetic/whatever. I think in general, you can’t go wrong with “I’m sorry, that must be hard.”

    But i think the internet has really taught me more about being sympathetic. Maybe because other bloggers and FB users are so open about what they do/don’t find helpful. But also because I think, in this format we have here, your blog is YOUR turn to talk (likewise FB posts: your post is your turn). I don’t use your post to talk about things that upset ME, I use it to support you. And then you come to my blog and do the same. I think it’s a really good model for in-person interactions, too. And i like reading what others said and seeing which comments I find supportive and which unhelpful.

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about your questions all morning after I read this post and also your comment. So, it answer your first question (with a twist) yes to offering support and yes to being supported. Honestly, in my worst moments, I didn’t even know what I wanted/needed in the form of support. What seemed okay one minute would change the next. I’ve encountered this too, with trying to be supportive only to learn later I was doing it all wrong. I think Ana’s point of needing to develop a thick skin is a good one, but seriously it can be very hard at times.

    What I’ve been trying as of late is to be more willing to spend time exploring what I need in the moment. The defacto is still “leave me the hell alone” in the heat of the moment, but ultimately I’m finding that some days I want people to join me in the experience so that I don’t feel so isolated and alone with my feelings. That somehow it helps justify that what I’m feeling is normal. I don’t need things fixed, I just need to not feel like a freak.

  5. This is a great post. Because I agree with you – if we don’t know what we want to hear, how we want to be supported, then we can hardly get that upset at others who say the wrong thing. And I think sometimes that can make it harder to support someone. We become acutely aware, after going through loss and infertility, how easy it is to say the wrong thing. But hopefully we also know that saying something, anything, is often better than saying nothing at all.

  6. I try not to read too much into phrases people say- I get “I can’t imagine” a lot, and it doesn’t bother me- I just understand that they truly have no idea what to say or how to help, and that’s ok. To me, saying something is almost always better than saying nothing- when people are silent, it hurts me worse than when they say some cliché phrase. On the flip side, when I am the one offering support, I try to be honest- most of the time it’s “I’m so sorry, you are in my thoughts and prayers” or something along those lines. I try to offer specific help instead of saying “If you need anything, just let me know”- which puts the burden back on the person. You are right, it’s tricky, and sometimes I mess up. I think being a supportive friend/family member is a process, and each situation is different. Sometimes we do better than other times, and that’s ok too.

  7. I think there are different sorts of support when a friend or family member is suffering,

    1. Straight up empathy: you want the person to know that, to quote a late President, you feel their pain. This rarely goes awry.
    2. Sympathy: and this I think is where the sufferers most often feel that friends and families can be expressing pity. This is where remarks like “I can’t imagine” and “I’m so lucky to have what I have” can lead to the thoughts by the sufferer that they are even more alone than they thought.
    3. Intervention: this is the most rare, but sometimes family and friends are concerned that the sufferer might die or become hurt in some irreperable way and straight up empathy or blind support is no longer an option.

    All paths are tricky and not mistake-free. But I would say sympathy is the one that can cause pain and I try to avoid it. Although I fail, and make mistakes.

  8. If someone is trying to help me through a tough time/decision, I do my best to not judge or get mad about whatever they say, even if it not especially helpful. I think that it is important to remember that they are not in the same situation and that all they are doing is trying to help. If you don’t know what you need from them, then it’s not fair to get mad at them if they say or do the wrong thing. Pushing people away when they are trying to help will only make them not reach out to you in the future.

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