Monday, March 10, 2008

Who Gets in Your Bucket?

Many times on our journey of grief, we run into people who want us to feel better, mostly so that they will feel better. We scare them. We are in more pain than they can imagine, and they think that platitudes or constant chiding will miraculously cure us of our grief. In the grief community, these folks are not-so-affectionately called "Don't Get It"s or DGIs for short. I like to call them the Clearly Clueless™. This kind of behavior is to be expected from strangers and acquaintances, and DGIs are simply part of the grief landscape. But what about when we get this behavior from close friends and family? Wouldn't it be helpful if we could print out a short article and have them read it? The following article by Doug Manning does a great job of explaining to DGIs why their reproaches are not at all helpful, as well as offering them a simple suggestion to truly help us:

Who Gets in Your Bucket?
— By Doug Manning

The best way I know to picture how we receive help from others in grief is to imagine you are holding a bucket. The size and color doesn't matter. The bucket represents the feelings bottled up inside of you when you are in pain. If you have suffered a loss, hold the bucket and think through how you feel right now. If you are reading this to learn more about helping others, then imagine what would be in your bucket if a loved one had died very recently. What is in your bucket?

Fear. Will I survive? What will happen to me now? Who will care for me? Who will be with me when I need someone near? Most likely your bucket is almost full just from the fear. But there is also:

Pain. It is amazing how much physical pain there is in grief. Your chest hurts, and you can't breathe. Sometimes the pain is so intense your body refuses to even move. There is enough pain to fill the bucket all by itself.

Sorrow. There is devastating sadness; overwhelming sorrow. A gaping hole has been bitten out of your heart and it bleeds inside your very soul. You cry buckets of tears and then cry some more.

Loneliness. There is no lonely like that felt when you are in a room full of people and totally alone at the same time. Loneliness alone can fill any bucket ever made.

I could go on, but that's enough to get the idea across, and hopefully get you started thinking through your own list. What is in your bucket?

Now picture someone like me approaching you and your bucket. I also have a bucket. My bucket is full of explanations. I am armed and ready to explain why your loved one had to die, how they are now better off and how you should feel.

I am also well equipped with new ways to look at your loss. In politics they call that "spin doctoring," but most human beings seem to know this skill by instinct.

I have almost a bucketful of comforting words and encouraging sayings. I can also quote vast amounts of scriptures. I seem to favor the ones that tell you not to grieve.

So we face each other armed with full buckets. The problem is, I don't want to get into your bucket. Yours is scary. If I get in there, you might start crying and I may not be able to make you stop. You might ask me something I could not answer. There is too much intimacy in your bucket. I want to stand at a safe distance and pour what is in my bucket into yours. I want the things in my bucket to wash over your pain like some magic salve to take away your pain and dry your tears. I have this vision of my words being like cool water to a dry tongue, soothing and curing as it flows.

But your bucket is full. There is no room for anything that is in my bucket. Your needs are calling so loudly there is no way you could hear anything I say. Your pain is far too intense to be cooled by any verbal salve, no matter how profound.

The only way I can help you is to get into your bucket, to try to feel your pain, to accept your feelings as they are and make every effort to understand. I cannot really know how you feel. I cannot actually understand your pain or how your mind is working under the stress, but I can stand with you through the journey. I can allow you to feel what you feel and learn to be comfortable doing so. That is called, "Getting into your bucket."

I was speaking on "Guilt and Anger in Grief " to a conference of grieving parents. I asked the group what they felt guilty about. I will never forget one mother who said, "All the way to the hospital, my son begged me to turn back. He did not want the transplant. He was afraid. I would not turn back, and he died."

I asked her how many times someone had told her that her son would have died anyway. She said, "Hundreds." When I asked her if that had helped her in any way she said, "No."

I asked her how many times she had been told that she was acting out of love and doing the right thing. She gave the same two responses. "Many times" and "No, it did not help."

I asked her how many times she had been told that God had taken her son for some reason, and she gave the same responses--"Many" and "No help."

I asked how many times someone had told her that it had been four years since her son's death and it was time to "Put that behind you and get on with your life." This time she responded with great anger that she had heard that from many well-meaning people, including family members, and that it not only did not help, it added to her pain and made her angry.

What I was really asking her is, "How many people have tried to pour their buckets into yours?"

I then said, "Would it help if I hugged you and said 'that must really hurt'?"

She said, "That would help a great deal. That would really help."

Why would that help? Because I was offering to get into her bucket with her and to be in her pain, instead of trying to salve over her pain with words and explanations.

If you are in pain, find someone who will get into your bucket. Most of the time these folks are found in grief groups or among friends who have been there. It is not normal procedure. It is hard to swallow our fears and climb into your bucket.

If you are reading this to find ways to help others in grief, then lay aside your explanations and your words of comfort. Forget all of the instructions and directions you think will help, and learn to say, "That must really hurt." I think that is the most healing combination of words in the English language. They really mean, "May I feel along with you as you walk through your pain?" "May I get into your bucket?"


Christine said...

This is helpful and will help me be more patient with the people I had dubbed CLUELESS ONES cause really I have felt close to bonking some of them in the nose.

I just got clueless Christmas card in the mail. It came from my aunt and uncle that live in the same city. They were aware that that my husband had cancer and had passed away. They had been unable to attend the funeral.

The card said: We are so sorry for your loss. We will miss him very much. the card had snowmen on the front and said Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas.

They had not visited John and myself for the last three years that he was sick although they had told me if I wanted anything at all just call. I did once in an emergency situation with my mom their sister. Guess what? They were unable to help.

Vic said...

Hi Christine,

I'm very sorry for your loss.

Yes, we quickly find out who our real friends and family are. We also find out about our fair-weather friends and family.

I remember reading once about the difference between the two -- it went something like this:

If you were falsely imprisoned in Thailand on drug charges, a friend would say, "we're pulling for you, and we'll throw a big party for you when you get out."

A real friend would say, "I just booked my flight and I'll get you out of there inside of 48 hours, no matter what it takes."

The secret is that we need both kinds, the real friends and the fair-weather ones.

When we're grieving, we're often super-sensitive to this kind of stuff. Something that I read from Ann Landers can be helpful to say: "Thanks, I'm sure you mean well."

Beats bonking them on the nose ;-)

May you find peace,