I somehow ended up with a free subscription to Parenting magazine, which seems to be so geared towards new mothers (preferably those under 35) that I often find it annoyingly irrelevant. At this point in my life, for instance, articles about how to "keep the spark alive with the new Daddy" make me more nauseated than a first-trimester subway ride without Sea-Bands.
But needing something to read while I was eating lunch today, I fished the March issue out of the recyling bag and found a fabulous article: "How to Help a Friend in Need," by Margaret Renkel. It gives advice for how to be truly helpful when someone is in a state of loss or other crisis.
The online version doesn't include the rather brilliant sidebar, "What Not to Say to a Mom in Crisis." So I'm taking the liberty of typing it up here.
Sometimes the most well-meaning friends say hurtful things. Try to avoid:
• "Everything's going to be just fine." This minimizes what may be a very serious problem and says that her fears aren't legitimate.
• “I know just how you feel.” You probably don’t. Even if you were once in similar circumstances you didn’t necessarily feel the same way your friend feels now. A gentler opening: “If you ever feel like talking, please give me a call. I suffered a miscarriage once, and it helped to talk with women who’d been through the experience.”
• “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Many religious traditions don’t accept misfortune as divinely ordained. It’s best to avoid imposing your own religious frame of reference on someone else.
• “It could be worse.” It isn’t helpful to point out that some kinds of cancer are worse than others.
• “At least you still have [fill in the blank].” People who’ve lost someone or something important—a parent, a marriage—are usually well aware of the blessings that remain, but still need time to mourn that loss.
One caveat: If you’re reading this list and consumed with guilt, remembering the times you’ve made exactly these statements, don’t kick yourself. Even when people are in crisis mode, they can tell when a remark is innocent and not intended to be hurtful. They’ll try not to take it to heart—and you should do the same.
Just reading this article made me feel a little better somehow. (My life, alas, is not all about dazzling writers' conferences.) And listening to Ron Sexsmith helps, too.