Here’s one job you didn’t expect when you got divorced: teaching your friends what not to say to you. Sometimes saying nothing is the best direction to take when trying to comfort you.
Last Sunday, Grace, Susan and I plunked ourselves on our beach towels on the windswept sand at Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco. Glorious sunshine, wild surf, and that fresh ocean sea scent. The perfect change of scenery for our beleaguered divorced buddy.
Last week, the gavel had come down on Susan’s divorce. She was terrified, confused, and feeling very alone.
Gloria put her arm around her as she cried. “Don’t feel bad.” Gloria said. “You’ll find someone else before you know it. Look at you. You’re beautiful, accomplished, and strong. You’re going to be ok. Just give it time.”
It sounds like the right thing to say. It wasn’t.
Gloria was trying to fix it. That was the last thing Susan needed. In fact, it was contributing to her depression. She simply needed to cry – to grieve – and to talk about it, over and over again, and have her friends listen.
Tragically, no one teaches us how. We are taught to offer solutions, instead. Why? Our society values action and results, logic rather than emotions. A logical solution masquerades as an escape from emotional pain. The well-meaning friend thinks: “If I offer reassurance and a plan, she’ll feel better.” Not necessarily true. Of course, no one wants to watch her friend cry. It’s uncomfortable and painful for everyone. We want to kiss it and make it better.
For Susan, she needs to feel the pain to heal. There are no quick fixes. She needs to talk about it, write about it, and do it repeatedly. That’s the way the brain processes the divorce emotions – abandonment, fear, and sadness. Her pals might have to listen to her story many times, without remedying it or painting a perfect end picture. Their comments, after listening, must validate how she feels, not fix it.
Here are six common clichés about divorce depression and healing.
Tell your friends what not to say.
- “Don’t feel bad.” Impossible – of course you’re going to “feel bad”. You once loved your former spouse (or perhaps still do). It hurts. Better for your friend to say: “I know you must be hurting a lot right now.”
- “You can replace him.” When you were little, did your pet die? Did your parents instantly find a new puppy for you? You resented the new fur ball, right? There would only be one Fido, and you needed time to mourn. Today, the same principle applies. After the divorce grief subsides, a fresh candidate will appear on the radar. Not a replacement, a unique new model, matching the new you. A better statement: “Take care of you right now.”
- “You’re going to be ok.” While it’s reassuring, this is actually saying, “buck up”. Not what you need. You need support for your feelings now. ‘OK’ is a distant dream. A better statement: “This sadness will eventually end, but right now, sounds like you’re heartbroken.”
- “Give it time.” As if you have a choice! Again, reassuring, but you need strength for now. Better: “I’m here to help you as you take baby steps to get through this.”
- “Be strong for others.” Not so! Kids involved? Allow your children to see your pain (leave blame out, however). Kids learn by witnessing life’s struggles and watching you wind through the maze. They’ll realize that they, too, can survive in spite of challenging times. A better statement: “I know you don’t want your kids to see you so sad, but you’re really giving them a gift. They’ll know that life is tough – and that you can get through it.”
- “Keep busy.” Tempting, but too much busy-ness only masks the grief. There may be long stretches when you need to do nothing but sit and be sad. A better response from a friend: “Let me know when we can be together, and when you need private time.”
Tell your friend that you know she wants to help, but these platitudes can intensify the hurt. Then, tell her you’d like her to listen without suggestions unless you ask for them.
What you’d like to hear from her is, “I can only imagine how hard this is. I know I can’t fix it for you, but I’ll be here for you and I’ll listen.”
In the long run, one or more of these cliches may actually be the right direction for you. However, the decision to take action must come from within you, not from outside sources.
Talking about your divorce is critical as you heal. A good therapist or coach will guide you, but he or she will not tell you what you need to do. Only you know that. Keep talking to friends, too, but discern who your audience will be, and educate them. It’ll take the pressure off you both.
Help your friends help you by telling them what not to say.