People say [unkind] things to relieve themselves of feelings of pain, anxiety, and loss, not to offer you any relief. It is, in fact, a denial of your humanity to say those things. Accepting it without response may keep the peace, but it won’t be your peace.
— The Dying Time, by Joan Furman & David McNabb
People say stupid and hurtful things to the dying and their caretakers. They also say stupid and hurtful things after someone dies.
I have a list of stupid and hurtful things people said while our daughter was dying, or after she died. I can’t say I recall what, if anything, I said to people when they made these stupid comments.
One nice church lady came calling with pie, turned to my dying daughter and said, “Honey, you’re really blessed to know you’re going to die ahead of time.”
Another day, I went to a prayer group I then attended, and must have exceeded the daily limit of emoting, because one of my prayer partners leveled a stern gaze at me and exclaimed, “You are full of doubt and unbelief!”
And then there was the family member who worried out loud after the funeral, “I just hope you don’t have to lose any more children any time soon!”
Over the years I’ve seen that people make their most serious relational mistakes when friends suffer deeply or when they succeed stupendously. They talk about themselves while you are in anguish. They call to get your advice when you are exhausted. They pick fights and utter threats while your child dies, and it’s not about you or your child at all. It is about their anxiety, their doubt. It is about the loss of courage and the lack of balance they feel when they encounter a dying child, anguished parents. Sometimes it is about their lack of compassion; they want your child and you to get it overwith, stop suffering, so that life can go on.
These people are those who do no conscious work on their own dark materials; they don’t have to, because they throw their shadows outside of themselves, neatly side-stepping their responsibility for this part of themselves. The dying and bereaved become the shadow-bearers in these situations. And why not? The dying person is headed for darkness. Sleepwalking people want the dying and suffering to take their darkness, too. Then they will be able to return to their lives of non-suffering and ways-of-escape. Dying children and their anguished parents remind people that there is no way of escape.
That’s the thing, though: the no-way-of-escape is the way.
Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of Carl Jung’s, explained it this way:
Jung has said that to be in a situation where there is no way out, or to be in a conflict where there is no solution, is the classical beginning of the process of individuation. It is meant to be a situation without a solution: the unconscious wants the hopeless conflict in order to put ego-consciousness up against the wall, so that the man has to realize that whatever he does is wrong, whichever way he decides will be wrong. This is meant to knock out the superiority of the ego, which always acts from the illusion that it has the responsibility of decision. Naturally, if a man says, “Oh well, then I shall just let everything go and make no decision, but just protract and wriggle out of it,” the whole thing is equally wrong, for then naturally nothing happens. But if he is ethical enough to suffer to the core of his personality, then generally . . . the Self manifests.
In religious language you could say that the situation without issue is meant to force the man to rely on an act of God. In psychological language the situation without issue, which the anima arranges with great skill in a man’s life, is meant to drive him into a condition in which he is capable of experiencing the Self. When thinking of the anima as the soul guide, we are apt to think of Beatrice leading Dante up to Paradise, but we should not forget that he experienced that only after he had gone through Hell. Normally, the anima does not take a man by the hand and lead him right up to Paradise; she puts him first into a hot cauldron where he is nicely roasted for a while. (from Interpretation of Fairy Tales, New York: Spring Publications, p. 4).
Realizing that there is no way out, and that you have got to go through it, paradoxes and all, is enough to make grownups cry. I understand the compulsion to make the suffering shut up or go away, I really do.
But I have to say that understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to handle when one sees it. One of the best examples of the insanity of remaining insensible to other people’s suffering occurred three days after my daughter’s funeral. An acquaintance dropped by to return a book she had borrowed, and when I opened the door, she practically bounced through the door on winged feet. A huge smile lit up her face, and she brushed past me energetically, inviting herself into my entry. She was so cheerful that I thought she must not realize that my daughter had died. By that time, I was so bone weary and numb that I couldn’t recall whether I had seen her at the funeral or not.
This lady had lost her husband in a car accident some six years prior; I knew she had experienced great loss in her life, so stupidly told myself, again, that she must not know that our daughter had died. Otherwise, certainly she wouldn’t be breezing into my entryway, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“How ya doin’?!” she exclaimed, engulfing me in a big hug. I stood there mutely, thinking I had entered the Twilight Zone.
“What’s wrong?!” she prodded, still smiling.
“Uh. . . well, did you know Olivia died last week?” I weakly asked.
“Yup, sure did. How was it?”
How was it? How was it? How was what? Her death? Her funeral? My reaction? My grief?
I stared. I shrugged. She bustled herself right back out of the door.
And that was when I realized that I was in this grief thing by myself. I had to go through it as my own companion, just as I’d been my daughter’s companion throughout the dying process, promising her that I would not leave her side. I would have to hold my own hand to make it through this parched landscape, because it was for damn sure that I was surrounded by silly, self-absorbed women who hadn’t the grace to extend a simple condolence while returning a book, much less the grace to offer a steadying or comforting hand.
And that was a good thing to discover.