Goldilocks walked into an empty house and tried a bite of the three bowls lying there on the kitchen table. Ouch! she thought, this one is far too hot! My mouth is burning! The second bowl was equally shocking, ugh…this one is too cold! I might as well suck on an ice cube! But then she tried the third, ahhhh yes…this one is juuuuusssstttt right!
It’s been just over seven months since Ezra was delivered, and my wife and I have had the blessing to hear condolences from a variety of people. Just like Goldilocks, these condolences seem to come in three different forms; too hot, too cold, and just right, also known as....The Goldilocks effect.
Oh my goodness, I so sorry to hear about everything that you have had to go through, I can’t imagine what that’s like, it must be so hard, so painful, so…. Tears streaming down their face, sometimes even accompanied by a shortness of breath, shoulders that heave up and down as they try not to spiral completely out of control. They approach you like a hurricane rolling in, their energy threatening to completely gulp you up and sweep you off of your feet. There is no realization of social cues, uncomfortableness, or terror in the eyes of the person being “comforted” because the hurricane only cares about themselves. Their comforting isn’t about you. It’s about them. Their emotions, their problems, their stuff. It creeps from their peripherals and into their main focus, so that everything else fades away. They can’t handle the silence that often comes with grief, so they search for the right words, speaking all the words they can find from their word bank, except for the ones that matter. The hurricane lifts you up and takes your spot, so that you become the comforter and they become the griever. There, there you say, it’s okay, we’ll get through this.
Then there are those that respond quite differently. In many cases, their response is no response. They are like an ostrich, burying their head in the earth to avoid any contact. They’ll go through the whole work day without talking about “it.” They actively avoid the subject that you are grieving, not knowing that everything they talk about somehow reminds you of your grief. The ostrich works under the pretence that less is more, so they do the least amount of “comforting” as possible. Their avoidance, whether perceived or real, seems to symbolize that you are, in some way, contagious. If they talk to you they may also be caught with the disease of grief and the thought of that is unbearable. The worst thing that the Ostrich does is to give “sad eyes” without saying a word. You know they know, they know they know, but it’s easier to put our heads in the sand then open Pandora’s box. Ostriches take on all genders, all shapes, and all sizes. Their lack of acknowledgement strikes you right to the core, I’m right here! You can see me! I exist and my pain exists as well!
Then there are those who are juuuuuuuusssssttttt right. It’s not that they know the right words, or do the right things, their presence, in and of itself, is comfort. It’s not because you have known them for a while, or because they are a stranger, it’s because they let you be. They say things like I’m sorry for your loss or better yet, I have no clue what to say and then they sit there and comfort you. These people show up in many different forms; the flowers on the coffee table, the cards that litter the counter, the meals that they prepare, the random text message that says thinking of you. They don’t claim to know the answers, the right thing to say, the right thing to do, and they don’t need to. Some expel tears and sobs, others are stoic, but what makes these people special is that they are there. Fully there. They sit with you even though it’s uncomfortable, they empathize with you even though it forces them to feel, they sit in the shit and don’t even plug their noses. They just be. Outwardly, there is nothing special about these people, but inwardly these are the folks that are willing to sit through the tears, laughter, hopes, and defeat even though the experience is likely to change them. They are courageous enough to listen to our stories even though those stories can not be unheard.
There are reasons that all three types of people respond the way they do. I believe that it is because they have been impacted by the story of grief - they just have different ways that they respond to that story. For all of us, the stories of grief hit us right at our core, but some of us have done more work on our core than others. Just to clarify, I’m thankful for all three of these types of people, and I think the learning that I have taken from all of these folks is we need to do the hard work of working on ourselves. The more we are able to do that, the more we are able to enter someone else’s story and simply be.