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Righting reflex

Righting reflex

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Chantal (19): “My best friend’s mother is sick and has not long to live. Of course my friend is very sad and I don’t know how to deal with that. What can I do to cheer her up?”

Ingrid: When someone we love is sad or in mourning, we want to do something to make that feeling smaller, less intense. Of course, the suffering is in the first place terrible for the other person. However, it also generates all kinds of unpleasant feelings in us and those are difficult to endure. So it is logical that we do whatever we can in the hope that the other person will feel better. We try as it were to make him, her or the situation right. That doesn’t work. In these instances, there is nothing that you can do to limit the misery of the one you love. Even worse, you will be completely off track if that is your aim. Because what will you do? Most likely, you will give advice or reel off so-called comforting one-liners such as ‘after a storm comes a calm’. The paradox is that the other person will only feel worse, because of your good intentions, as he or she will feel misunderstood. In this respect, “When I ask you to listen to me and you feel that you have to do something to solve my problem, then you are abandoning me, however strange that may seem,” is a meaningful sentence from a poem by a poet whose name I don’t know.

The Dutch author Karel Glastra van Loon’s widow wrote a book about dealing with her grief, with the title that translates as ‘You can call me anytime’. This well-intentioned advice that she was given, is at the top of her list of vexations. Appealing to another is not something you can or want to do when the bog in which you find yourself is immensely deep. So no advice and no saying that you can be called anytime or that your door is always open. But what should you do or say? Repress your righting reflex. There is nothing that needs to be put right. If you can manage to restrain that reflex, then the next thing for you to do is deal with your own sorrow or powerlessness. Only then can you give your full attention to the other person. So visit your friend, Chantal, call her and be there. No more and no less than that. Grief expert Riet Fiddelaers-Jaspers wrote about this in one of her books: “Providing comfort does not mean removing the grief, comfort cannot bring back a departed, but it does help against the loneliness. Being the one providing comfort means that you are just as powerless as the person grieving. But you can be present and in doing so provide a reliable hold in the desolate landscape of the mourner.”

Ingrid Candel      

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