What do I say to someone who is sick? Adults regularly asked me this question when I was fifteen and in treatment for bone cancer. As an ill teenager straddling the line between a limitless future and no future at all, I felt proud that my disease had given me an air of tragic wisdom. I thought hard to provide a worthy answer. Looking back, I imagine myself – perfectly bald head shimmering with sparkly body lotion, wearing zebra-print pajamas, with multicolored tubes extending out from my body – sitting cross-legged on my hospital bed. Like some sort of strange yogi, I calmly received their fearful questions. But the truth is I didn't have an answer. And I still have no idea what to say.
After a decade of treatments, I have seen the gamut of responses to suffering. I received gifts from strangers – angel bears, bath salts, and candles. People prayed for me from afar or with their hands on my shoulders. The science minded clipped articles, recommended books, and researched hospitals. My uncle sent a wacky orange teddy that had been kissed by every person in his liberal church. My aunt practical moved in with us and planned homecoming parties after ever chemo treatment. Organizations planned fundraisers and meal rotations. While all of this was wonderful and helpful, the question of what to say remained. After the casserole had been served, the confetti vacuumed up, and the presents put away on a shelf, the moment still came when there was nothing left to do.
What we all want is a magic word – something that will make anguish vanish so we can continue living. As a teenager, I collected my favorite quotes in a tea tin and stashed them under my bed. Every morning and evening, I drew a quote at random and reflected on it. I am still a quote junky as evidenced by my Pinerest addiction. Despite my belief in the power of words, I have yet to find that cure-all phrase with the power to banish pain.
Recently, during a heart-breaking argument with a friend, she let a profound truth slip. “I just want to be numb,” she said, almost without meaning to admit it. I couldn't get her words out of my head. I kept reflecting on all the ways we seek numbness as an answer to our own helplessness. The thing about suffering is that we don't get any better at it with practice. Despite our wealth of experience, we always seem to be blindsided by any kind of pain. Each hurt wounds us afresh like we are children touching the stovetop for the first time. Immediately, we go looking for relief. If we can't take action and don't know what to say, we cut off or overload our emotional center to escape.
We are also afraid that empathy will hurt. The motivation behind the question “what do I say when someone is suffering” is partially one of self-preservation. We want to know the incantation to help someone else without getting in too deep. We fear that we are like tiny emotional sponges soaking up the oil-spill of tragedy. I took this fear to my own extreme when I avoided the c-word at any cost. I would stop watching movies if one of the characters had cancer. I threw out every gift and journal given to me when I was sick. I stopped volunteering at Relay for Life. I wanted to insulate myself. Despite my attempts to hide, people I loved were still diagnosed with and died of cancer.
In my mind, I try get back in touch with my sick teenage self. I want to know how she survived day to day. I may not be sick now but suffering finds its way into my life in various forms. The answer I get is not what I want to hear. I lived with my pain. I learned that throwing a screaming, crying fit only hurt my body more and did nothing to change my circumstance. I learned to take deep breaths as the needles went in. I learned that pain-killers made me feel lost and groggy like I was floating below the surface of my life so I cut down on them as quickly as possible. I noticed the ivy growing on the window screens and the sunlight reflected in the fountains were still beautiful even when I hurt. And on the deepest level, that is what we must do. Even as we work to change, help, and heal, we must be able to come to a place of silence and feel our pain. You can't let go of something that you are working so hard to cover up or deny.
Break-ups are an excellent example of suffering we can do little about. Although relationship troubles may seem trivial compared to life-threatening illness, we all know they are not. People often assume I am stronger because I've survived some of their worst fears – as if “normal” heartache no longer phases me. One of my high school teachers once asked me if other teens complaining about bad hair days bothered me because they had no idea how bad things can get. I felt silly because I still got upset by bad hair days. Ten years later, I still worry about the state of my strands. And break-ups still rip open those barely contained fears that I am essentially unlovable.
Wanting to take any action after being dumped, we embark on crazier and crazier schemes. I know because I have done/ am currently doing the following things: binge eating ice cream, desperately seeking someone knew, trying to incite jealousy, having another glass of wine, contemplating posting emo songs all over the ex's Facebook page, resolving to never speak to the ex again and then calling with nothing new to say, and nursing elaborate fantasies that this is not the end. Whether we are trying to check out or patch it up, we are doing everything we can not to feel that hole in our guts. We do this with others as well. We want the perfect card or handy line to dispatch like an emotional band-aid.
My dog taught me a different way to respond. He watches me and knows when my mood changes. When I cry, he scrambles up onto my chest and licks my tears. He can't provide any solutions or soothe me with words of wisdom. He does the only thing he can. He sits with me. As so many great religious teachings explain, we must learn to sit. Pain comes into our lives on a daily basis. Instead of pushing it away or jumping into a whirlwind of action, we must learn to sit and say “I am in pain.” And the people in our lives can sit with us and say “we know.”