Sunday, April 11, 2010

WHAT IF THEY CRY?


I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I first began to facilitate cancer support groups thirty years ago, I didn’t feel quite competent. Part of my shakiness was due to the fact that I wasn’t a psychotherapist. I had no psychiatric training beyond what all medical students get, and believe me, my ration remains unhelpful. But even had I been a qualified psychotherapist, I might still have asked myself, “What can I say that’ll help people?” “What if they break down and cry?” “What if someone absolutely flips out?”

Fortunately, I pressed on, and sure enough, my most worrisome predictions came to pass. I often didn’t know what to say; but that’s exactly what I wound up telling people. They broke down all the time; I found myself holding them and just letting them do it. A handful of people actually did flip out; I had private heart-to-hearts and learned how to recruit help.

My fears, I’ve come to understand, concerned issues native to plain old human contact. Emotional turmoil is a normal feature of living with cancer. Just hearing the diagnosis blows fuses. If you get a life-threatening illness and you don’t get anxious or fearful or angry or confused, then I’d doubt you’re normal. (I should add that a small number of people with cancer are mentally ill in addition, and they do indeed need to be specially addressed.)

Too many of us, especially physicians, consider emotions a psychiatric mine field. That's a shame, because relegating emotions to so-called specialists voids one’s opportunity to be a compassionate companion. Emotions aren’t foreign territory; they’re what life is about. So while my work doesn’t require psychotherapy training, it does require education in human intimacy.

I see “support,” then, as nothing more than a deep conversation between friends. Your friends are friends exactly to the extent they love you unconditionally. That means they listen to you so profoundly that their comprehension of you can surpass your own. Listening with their whole being, they have no idea what they’ll say next. They don’t interrupt, shut you up, contradict you, or shine you on. (They don't try to fix you, either, but that's a subject for another post.)

When you listen with this intensity, you encourage the speaker to transcend the mundane, go beyond daily modular conversation, the first draft, to drop ever more into the core to see what’s there. When what’s there is suffering, of course the visit hurts, but that’s where resides the map to the way out.

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