“Pull the car over and just cry. Give in to your sorrow.”
My neighbour stopped me last Friday, just when I was about to get into my car and run errands. Her mother died a few weeks ago, so I closed my car door and walked over to her.
I need your advice, she said. “I know that your mother died last year and you seem to be coping well.”
I didn’t answer her. I just listened.
She continued, “I drive around and I just want to pull over and cry my heart out. I don’t know what to do with myself or my emotions.”
She said a few more things… about caring for her mother for a long time, and how lost she felt now that her mother was gone. And she talked about how sad she felt. Everything she said resonated within me.
Finally she took a breath and looked at me, “What should I do? Do you have any advice?”
Before I could edit my words that were forming in my head, the words popped out…”Why don’t you just pull over and have a good cry? Give in to your emotions.”
She blinked. She blinked again. She stared at me intently. “Oh!” she whispered.
Her eyes welled up and she whispered, “Thank you.” And she turned away from me and went back into her house.
“Pull the car over and just cry.”
How little we need from each other when we are overcome with grief and sorrow.
While I was writing my Ebook about caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, I took a couple of courses in palliative care, and one of our instructors (a palliative nurse for many years) encouraged us to read a book, I Don’t Know What To Say – How to Help and Support Someone Who is Dying, by the late Dr. Robert Buckman.
When I first learned of Dr. Buckman, an oncologist, he hosted a television show in the 80’s, a show about sex. He was a warm and funny man and I immediately became a fan. When I Googled Dr. Buckman, I learned that he came to Canada in 1985 and worked in Sunnybrook Hospital and later, Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. He wrote a lot of books and publications and made many videos, combining medicine and humour. Interesting – I have always thought that people who combine science or medicine (that is, facts and information) with humour are gifted.
Dr. Buckman’s book set me straight many years ago. It was a difficult book to locate as it is out of print, but I bought a second-hand copy, on-line. I consider his I Don’t Know What To Say… a bedside table book – it is my go-to reference book whenever I learn of a friend’s poor diagnosis.
If I had to identify only one lesson that I have received from this book over the years, I would have to say it is: Listen. Say nothing. Just listen.
So when my neighbour asked me for advice, my other persona (I can fix this! persona) wanted to hijack the conversation; but, thankfully, I could hear Dr. Buckman whispering in my ear, just listen.
I wish I could say that I am a good listener all the time. It is actually the only 2016 intention that I made this year: Listen more. But the reality is that I often talk too much, especially when I am confronted with someone’s need to bare their soul to me. My default reaction is “Okay, I have just hung my armchair psychoanalyst shingle – I’m In – and I am ready to dispense advice.”
But wisely, Dr. Buckman encourages us to just stay still when someone comes to us with their sad news – a poor diagnosis or prognosis or a death of a loved one – and just say nothing.
He reminds us that patients or family members of someone who is ill or dying do not want us to solve their problems; they just want our ear. They want to talk and they need someone to just listen and say nothing. We can murmur yes, or nod our heads, or we can echo back to them what they just said as an affirmation that we are hearing them (correctly).
One of the most interesting things he wrote about was a simple lesson about listening. A research study was done in the United States in which untrained people were taught to “counsel” volunteer patients – they were taught to just sit and listen and say “I see.” All of the patients thought that the counselling sessions were excellent, and asked to see their “therapists” for more sessions in the future. The untrained people (just by listening) were viewed by the patients as “therapists,” helpful “therapists,” no less.
Dr. Buckman was making a point – listening is a valuable and worthy strategy when dealing with people who have problems. Well, people with problems would include…all of us! The whole Universe (unless you are Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama).
Dr. Buckman’s advice is gold; it’s an alchemy.
Listening is a therapeutic tool because it allows for that sacred space: the space where there is stillness and silence. In that sacred space is where healing takes place and where acceptance lives. It is an energy that is real, and when we most need comfort and support, that healing energy allows us to talk freely, without distraction, without judgment. Listening can transform someone’s pain – just by allowing someone to share their pain and sorrow. When we listen to someone (without giving any advice), we silently transmit a message: I’m here for you; whatever you say, I hear you. And that silent message allows us to connect.
Thanks to Dr. Buckman I learned that I didn’t need to cure/solve/fix my neighbour’s grief. Nor did I need to advise her – she already had the answer within.
Her first comment to me was that when she felt so sad and overcome with emotion, she just wanted to pull her car over and cry. That’s the answer.
Our hearts and our spirits always push us in the direction that we need to go…that little lesson I know for sure. Her heart was telling her to just cry and let it rip.
Holding on to our emotions is never a healthy coping strategy. (If you are in a crowded arena with complete strangers, you might want to hold in your emotional buildup. Like the time I was in a nurse’s office answering questions about my father’s needs on the first day of his entering a long-term care residence – I spotted him on a gurney in the hallway and I let it rip. I was an emotional geyser that blew up. I am sure that I traumatized the admitting nurse.)
No matter our age, losing a parent is a huge milestone in life. And one of the means of allowing ourselves to let go of the grief and sorrow as it wells up within is to…weep.
When we allow the emotions to flow, we show compassion to ourselves. If we feel anger, then acknowledge it. Sit with it. Whatever it is that we are feeling, whether it is sorrow, resentment, or anger – just sit with it and allow it. Do not fight it; or push it away; or ignore it; or look for distractions. Sooner or later our feelings need to vent. The beauty of this technique is it is so simple; no editing, no revising is necessary.
We need to allow our feelings, a voice. Sit with them and accept them and in time answers will arise and we will figure out why we are angry or resentful. And we will learn to let go. But first, there must be awareness.
We are human. And humans feel.
Pull the car over to the side of the road and just cry.
Trust me on this…you’ll feel better.