“I Know How You Feel”

Correct answer? I don’t. How could I?

But I may still be able to be helpful to you without absolutely knowing “how you feel.”

Why don’t I know exactly how you feel? I am not you. I am not your age or perhaps your gender. Maybe I’m not your religion. I wasn’t born in the same place under the same circumstances. My parents made more money or maybe less. They survived the Great Depression well, or badly, or not at all. And so on.

The point is, I’m not in your skin, so I can’t know precisely what it feels like to be there. It’s true, I might well have some idea, perhaps even a very good one. What might that idea be based on?

First of all, we are both human and have a certain set of broadly shared, although not identical life experiences. Secondly, as a therapist, I’ve talked to thousands of people who have told me what they think about certain things and how some events effected them. So I know the range of what is possible in reaction to an enormous number of events. I’ve also read much in the way of text books, been told much by my teachers, and have shared in the richness of emotion, perception, and experience found in great memoirs and novels.

And yet, despite all of this, I am open to surprise. My father died in the year 2000 at the age of 88. Rather suddenly. I’d known he was mortal at least since the time of his heart attack when I was 11. Prior to his death I’d counseled numerous people who were suffering from losses. I listened to their stories. Still, despite dad’s advanced age, I was shocked at the abruptness of his death, the “here today, gone tomorrow” reality of it. And surprised, too, by how tired I was for months afterward. As if some of the life force taken from him had been taken from me too. And even with this experience now well under my belt, even with having “lived” a loss like this (rather than just read about it or heard about it), I can’t say for sure that “I know how you feel” if you tell me about the death of your father. Your relationship with your dad might have been different enough, and his life circumstance different enough to explain some of this lack of identity.

You might ask me: “How then can you help me in grieving my own loss?” In several ways. I can listen to you and bear witness to your pain. I can be sympathetic. I can accept the emotions and stories you share: the varied combination of sadness, anger, exhaustion, and sense of separation from the world that comes with the death of a loved one. I can abide with you, acknowledge your pain, and let you knowI will “be there” until it passes. And, if you will accept the comfort, our relationship will help to reattach you to life, even while you are grieving something that tends to detached you from it.

You will never be exactly the same as you were before your loss, of course. But, you will very likely heal if you share your grief. If you hold it in or try to “move on” too quickly or shed your tears only privately — then your sadness might well pass more slowly or not at all. Human contact in the aftermath of a loss is crucial. A supportive spouse, friend or therapist can help. Time usually does the rest.

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