In essence, that’s all you have to do. That’s all you need to say.
Sometimes we encounter a friend, ward member, or family member who is in so much pain, we feel like the right words are completely lost. Most of the time it’s because we have no experience in what they’re going through. How then can we be of comfort to them? We want them to feel better, but it seems we’re destined to say the wrong thing. Yet we feel obligated to respond. So what can be done?
My baby has been sick with a rare form of infant seizures categorized as a “catastrophic epilepsy” due to its urgency and impact on physical and cognitive development.* We don’t know the cause, but we do know that compared to other babies with his seizure type, he’s been very lucky. Despite a delayed diagnosis (and wading through multiple misdiagnoses), the frequent potentially brain-damaging seizures abated quickly, and we have resources to work toward a normal development. But despite this good news, I’ve been a total wreck. First, there was the struggle to even get an EEG and convince the doctors that it wasn’t mere acid reflux. Then there was the period of researching the rare disorder, and facing the terrifying statistics for outcomes. After that, I found an online community of moms who have infants with the same disorder, and found out that each baby’s case is unique. And now things have slowed a bit, as the most major devastating causes have been ruled out, and we let the treatment take effect.
All throughout this time, I’ve reached out to family and friends in desperation, to share my concerns, to tell someone that in the middle of the night that here I was, a sobbing mother who felt my only child was slipping away, and I was powerless to stop it. I’ve also shared my euphoria at good news and optimistic neurology reports. I am glad I have not been silently bearing this—I have opened up and told my community that I need support if I’m going to get through this. And since my baby needs me, I have a vested interest in taking care of myself emotionally.
I have been so impressed with the response I’ve received when I’ve reached out, but I admit I’m not sure if I deserve it. In the past, I’ve been frightened by the immense pain of others. There was that sister in my old singles’ ward who bore her testimony in Relief Society about her sexual abuse, and I remember feeling embarrassed for her and frightened of her public sharing of this intimate detail. There was the woman I served in the Young Women’s presidency with who was going through a divorce, and I felt like I had nothing to say to comfort her and so I didn’t reach out sufficiently in a way I now wish I had. And there was the sister I visit taught years ago who sent me a Christmas card after she moved out of the ward, telling me her new baby was having developmental problems. I left her card on my table for months, intending to call, but being petrified to actually make the phone call because I didn’t know what to say or how to respond to this brokenhearted mother. Yes, I’ve failed to comfort others even when I had proximity and reasonable stewardship, mostly out of my own fears and feelings of inadequacy.
So I’ve needed to learn what I’ve learned through this outpouring of support. And what I’ve learned is that is doesn’t take much to make a difference. It doesn’t take a prognosis or prediction of how the problem will resolve. It doesn’t even take personal experience in the same type of suffering. All it takes is to say: I acknowledge your pain. I understand your worry. I understand you need to deal with what is in front of you right now. I’ll sit with you. I’ll pray for you. I’ll light a candle for you, and do my sun salutations for you. I’ll hope the best for you and those you care for. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
I’m grateful to my friends and family for teaching me this kind of gentle, healing compassion.
*Incidentally, November is epilepsy awareness month. If you’re so inclined, take time to become seizure smart and appreciate those with epilepsy in your life.